Through the Fire
[Footnote: Copyright, 1891, by MACMILLAN Co.]
The Policeman rode through the Himalayan forest, under the
moss-draped oaks, and his orderly trotted after him.
'It's an ugly business, Bhere Singh,' said the Policeman. 'Where
'It is a very ugly business,' said Bhere Singh; 'and as for THEM,
they are, doubtless, now frying in a hotter fire than was ever made of
'Let us hope not,' said the Policeman, 'for, allowing for the
difference between race and race, it's the story of Francesca da
Rimini, Bhere Singh.'
Bhere Singh knew nothing about Francesca da Rimini, so he held his
peace until they came to the charcoal-burners' clearing where the
dying flames said 'whit, whit, whit' as they fluttered and whispered
over the white ashes. It must have been a great fire when at full
height. Men had seen it at Donga Pa across the valley winking and
blazing through the night, and said that the charcoal-burners of Kodru
were getting drunk. But it was only Suket Singh, Sepoy of the load
Punjab Native Infantry, and Athira, a woman,
This was how things befell; and the Policeman's Diary will bear me
Athira was the wife of Madu, who was a charcoal-burner, one-eyed
and of a malignant disposition. A week after their marriage, he beat
Athira with a heavy stick. A month later, Suket Singh, Sepoy, came
that way to the cool hills on leave from his regiment, and electrified
the villagers of Kodru with tales of service and glory under the
Government, and the honour in which he, Suket Singh, was held by the
Colonel Sahib Bahadur. And Desdemona listened to Othello as Desdemonas
have done all the world over, and, as she listened, she loved.
'I've a wife of my own,' said Suket Singh, 'though that is no
matter when you come to think of it. I am also due to return to my
regiment after a time, and I cannot be a deserter—I who intend to be
Havildar.' There is no Himalayan version of 'I could not love thee,
dear, as much, Loved I not Honour more;' but Suket Singh came near to
'Never mind,' said Athira, 'stay with me, and, if Madu tries to
beat me, you beat him.'
'Very good,' said Suket Singh; and he beat Madu severely, to the
delight of all the charcoal-burners of Kodru.
'That is enough,' said Suket Singh, as he rolled Madu down the
hillside. 'Now we shall have peace.' But Madu crawled up the grass
slope again, and hovered round his hut with angry eyes.
'He'll kill me dead,' said Athira to Suket Singh. 'You must take me
'There'll be a trouble in the Lines. My wife will pull out my
beard; but never mind,' said Suket Singh, 'I will take you.'
There was loud trouble in the Lines, and Suket Singh's beard was
pulled, and Suket Singh's wife went to live with her mother and took
away the children. 'That's all right,' said Athira; and Suket Singh
said, 'Yes, that's all right.'
So there was only Madu left in the hut that looks across the valley
to Donga Pa; and, since the beginning of time, no one has had any
sympathy for husbands so unfortunate as Madu.
He went to Juseen Daze, the wizard-man who keeps the Talking
'Get me back my wife,' said Madu.
'I can't,' said Juseen Daze, 'until you have made the Sutlej in the
valley run up the Donga Pa.'
'No riddles,' said Madu, and he shook his hatchet above Juseen
Daze's white head.
'Give all your money to the headmen of the village,' said Juseen
Daze; 'and they will hold a communal Council, and the Council will
send a message that your wife must come back.'
So Madu gave up all his worldly wealth, amounting to twenty-seven
rupees, eight annas, three pice, and a silver chain, to the Council of
Kodru. And it fell as Juseen Daze foretold.
They sent Athira's brother down into Suket Singh's regiment to call
Athira home. Suket Singh kicked him once round the Lines, and then
handed him over to the Havildar, who beat him with a belt.
'Come back,' yelled Athira's brother.
'Where to?' said Athira.
'To Madu,' said he.
'Never,' said she.
'Then Juseen Daze will send a curse, and you will wither away like
a barked tree in the springtime,' said Athira's brother. Athira slept
over these things.
Next morning she had rheumatism. 'I am beginning to wither away
like a barked tree in the springtime,' she said. 'That is the curse of
And she really began to wither away because her heart was dried up
with fear, and those who believe in curses die from curses. Suket
Singh, too, was afraid because he loved Athira better than his very
life. Two months passed, and Athira's brother stood outside the
regimental Lines again and yelped, 'Aha! You are withering away. Come
'I will come back,' said Athira.
'Say rather that WE will come back,' said Suket Singh.
'Ai; but when?' said Athira's brother.
'Upon a day very early in the morning,' said Suket Singh; and he
tramped off to apply to the Colonel Sahib Bahadur for one week's
'I am withering away like a barked tree in the spring,' moaned
'You will be better soon,' said Suket Singh; and he told her what
was in his heart, and the two laughed together softly, for they loved
each other. But Athira grew better from that hour.
They went away together, travelling third-class by train as the
regulations provided, and then in a cart to the low hills, and on foot
to the high ones. Athira sniffed the scent of the pines of her own
hills, the wet Himalayan hills. 'It is good to be alive,' said Athira.
'Hah!' said Suket Singh. 'Where is the Kodru road and where is the
Forest Ranger's house?'...
'It cost forty rupees twelve years ago,' said the Forest Ranger,
handing the gun.
'Here are twenty,' said Suket Singh, 'and you must give me the best
'It is very good to be alive,' said Athira wistfully, sniffing the
scent of the pine-mould; and they waited till the night had fallen
upon Kodru and the Donga Pa. Madu had stacked the dry wood for the
next day's charcoal-burning on the spur above his house. 'It is
courteous in Madu to save us this trouble,' said Suket Singh as he
stumbled on the pile, which was twelve foot square and four high. 'We
must wait till the moon rises.'
When the moon rose, Athira knelt upon the pile. 'If it were only a
Government Snider,' said Suket Singh ruefully, squinting down the
wire- bound barrel of the Forest Ranger's gun.
'Be quick,' said Athira; and Suket Singh was quick; but Athira was
quick no longer. Then he lit the pile at the four corners and climbed
on to it, re-loading the gun.
The little flames began to peer up between the big logs atop of the
brushwood. 'The Government should teach us to pull the triggers with
our toes,' said Suket Singh grimly to the moon. That was the last
public observation of Sepoy Suket Singh.
Upon a day, early in the morning, Madu came to the pyre and
shrieked very grievously, and ran away to catch the Policeman who was
on tour in the district.
'The base-born has ruined four rupees' worth of charcoal wood,'
Madu gasped. 'He has also killed my wife, and he has left a letter
which I cannot read, tied to a pine bough.'
In the stiff, formal hand taught in the regimental school, Sepoy
Suket Singh had written—
'Let us be burned together, if anything remain over, for we have
made the necessary prayers. We have also cursed Madu, and Malak the
brother of Athira—both evil men. Send my service to the Colonel Sahib
The Policeman looked long and curiously at the marriage bed of red
and white ashes on which lay, dull black, the barrel of the Ranger's
gun. He drove his spurred heel absently into a half-charred log, and
the chattering sparks flew upwards. 'Most extraordinary people,' said
'WHE-W, WHEW, OUIOU,' said the little flames.
The Policeman entered the dry bones of the case, for the Punjab
Government does not approve of romancing, in his Diary.
'But who will pay me those four rupees?' said Madu.