WITHOUT BENEFIT OF CLERGY
BY RUDYARD KIPLING
Before my Spring I garnered Autumn's gain,
Out of her time my field was white with grain,
The year gave up her secrets to my woe.
Forced and deflowered each sick season lay,
In mystery of increase and decay;
I saw the sunset ere men saw the day,
Who am too wise in that I should not know.
"But if it be a girl?"
"Lord of my life, it cannot be. I have prayed for so many nights,
and sent gifts to Sheikh Badl's shrine so often, that I know God
will give us a son--a man-child that shall grow into a man. Think
of this and be glad. My mother shall be his mother till I can take
him again, and the mullah of the Pattan mosque shall cast his
nativity--God send he be born in an auspicious hour!--and then,
and then thou wilt never weary of me, thy slave."
"Since when hast thou been a slave, my queen?"
"Since the beginning--till this mercy came to me. How could I be
sure of thy love when I knew that I had been bought with silver?"
"Nay, that was the dowry. I paid it to thy mother."
"And she has buried it, and sits upon it all day long like a hen.
What talk is yours of dower! I was bought as though I had been a
Lucknow dancing girl instead of a child."
"Art thou sorry for the sale?"
"I have sorrowed; but today I am glad. Thou wilt never cease to
love me now?--answer, my king."
"Not even though the mem-log--the white women of thy own
blood--love thee? And remember, I have watched them driving in
the evening; they are very fair."
"I have seen fire-balloons by the hundred. I have seen the moon,
and--then I saw no more fire-balloons."
Ameera clapped her hands and laughed. "Very good talk," she said.
Then with an assumption of great stateliness, "It is enough. Thou
hast my permission to depart--if thou wilt."
The man did not move. He was sitting on a low red-lacquered couch
in a room furnished only with a blue and white floor-cloth, some
rugs, and a very complete collection of native cushions. At his
feet sat a woman of sixteen, and she was all but all the world in
his eyes. By every rule and law she should have been otherwise,
for he was an Englishman, and she a Mussulman's daughter bought
two years before from her mother, who, being left without money,
would have sold Ameera shrieking to the Prince of Darkness if the
price had been sufficient.
It was a contract entered into with a light heart; but even before
the girl had reached her bloom she came to fill the greater portion
of John Holden's life. For her, and the withered hag her mother,
he had taken a little house overlooking the great red-walled city,
and found,--when the marigolds had sprung up by the well in the
courtyard and Ameera had established herself according to her
own ideas of comfort, and her mother had ceased grumbling at the
inadequacy of the cooking places, the distance from the daily
market, and at matters of housekeeping in general--that the
house was to him his home. Anyone could enter his bachelor's
bungalow by day or night, and the life that he led there was an
unlovely one. In the house in the city his feet only could pass
beyond the outer courtyard to the women's rooms; and when the big
wooden gate was bolted behind him he was king in his own territory,
with Ameera for queen. And there was going to be added to this
kingdom a third person whose arrival Holden felt inclined to
resent. It interfered with his perfect happiness. It disarranged
the orderly peace of the house that was his own. But Ameera was
wild with delight at the thought of it, and her mother not less
so. The love of a man, and particularly a white man, was at the
best an inconstant affair, but it might, both women argued, be
held fast by a baby's hands. "And then," Ameera would always say,
"then he will never care for the white mem-log. I hate them
all--I hate them all."
"He will go back to his own people in time," said the mother; "but by
the blessing of God that time is yet afar off."
Holden sat silent on the couch thinking of the future, and his
thoughts were not pleasant. The drawbacks of a double life are
manifold. The Government, with singular care, had ordered him
out of the station for a fortnight on special duty in the place
of a man who was watching by the bedside of a sick wife. The
verbal notification of the transfer had been edged by a cheerful
remark that Holden ought to think himself lucky in being a
bachelor and a free man. He came to break the news to Ameera.
"It is not good," she said slowly, "but it is not all bad. There
is my mother here, and no harm will come to me--unless indeed I
die of pure joy. Go thou to thy work and think no troublesome
thoughts. When the days are done I believe . . . nay, I am sure.
And--and then I shall lay him in thy arms, and thou wilt love
me forever. The train goes tonight, at midnight is it not? Go
now, and do not let thy heart be heavy by cause of me. But thou
wilt not delay in returning? Thou wilt not stay on the road to
talk to the bold white mem-log. Come back to me swiftly, my life."
As he left the courtyard to reach his horse that was tethered to
the gatepost, Holden spoke to the white-haired old watchman who
guarded the house, and bade him under certain contingencies
despatch the filled-up telegraph form that Holden gave him. It
was all that could be done, and with the sensations of a man who
has attended his own funeral Holden went away by the night mail
to his exile. Every hour of the day he dreaded the arrival of the
telegram, and every hour of the night he pictured to himself the
death of Ameera. In consequence his work for the State was not
of first-rate quality, nor was his temper towards his colleagues
of the most amiable. The fortnight ended without a sign from his
home, and, torn to pieces by his anxieties, Holden returned to be
swallowed up for two precious hours by a dinner at the club, wherein
he heard, as a man hears in a swoon, voices telling him how execrably
he had performed the other man's duties, and how he had endeared
himself to all his associates. Then he fled on horseback through
the night with his heart in his mouth. There was no answer at first
to his blows on the gate, and he had just wheeled his horse round
to kick it in when Pir Khan appeared with a lantern and held his
"Has aught occurred?" said Holden.
"The news does not come from my mouth, Protector of the Poor,
but--" He held out his shaking hand as befitted the bearer of
good news who is entitled to a reward.
Holden hurried through the courtyard. A light burned in the
upper room. His horse neighed in the gateway, and he heard a
shrill little wail that sent all the blood into the apple of
his throat. It was a new voice, but it did not prove that
Ameera was alive.
"Who is there?" he called up the narrow brick staircase.
There was a cry of delight from Ameera, and then the voice of
the mother, tremulous with old age and pride--"We be two women
On the threshold of the room Holden stepped on a naked dagger, that
was laid there to avert ill-luck, and it broke at the hilt under
his impatient heel.
"God is great!" cooed Ameera in the half-light. "Thou hast taken
his misfortunes on thy head."
"Ay, but how is it with thee, life of my life? Old woman, how is
it with her?"
"She has forgotten her sufferings for joy that the child is born.
There is no harm; but speak softly," said the mother.
"It only needed thy presence to make me all well," said Ameera.
"My king, thou hast been very long away. What gifts hast thou
for me? Ah, ah! It is I that bring gifts this time. Look, my
life, look. Was there ever such a babe? Nay, I am too weak even
to clear my arm from him."
"Rest then, and do not talk. I am here, bachari [little woman]."
"Well said, for there is a bond and a heel-rope [peecharee]
between us now that nothing can break. Look--canst thou see
in this light? He is without spot or blemish. Never was such
a man-child. Ya illah! he shall be a pundit--no, a trooper of
the Queen. And, my life, dost thou love me as well as ever,
though I am faint and sick and worn? Answer truly."
"Yea. I love as I have loved, with all my soul. Lie still, pearl,
"Then do not go. Sit by my side here--so. Mother, the lord of this
house needs a cushion. Bring it." There was an almost imperceptible
movement on the part of the new life that lay in the hollow of Ameera's
arm. "Aho!" she said, her voice breaking with love. "The babe is a
champion from his birth. He is kicking me in the side with mighty
kicks. Was there ever such a babe! And he is ours to us--thine and
mine. Put thy hand on his head, but carefully, for he is very young,
and men are unskilled in such matters."
Very cautiously Holden touched with the tips of his fingers the downy
"He is of the faith," said Ameera; "for lying here in the night-watches
I whispered the call to prayer and the profession of faith into his
ears. And it is most marvelous that he was born upon a Friday, as I
was born. Be careful of him, my life; but he can almost grip with his
Holden found one helpless little hand that closed feebly on his finger.
And the clutch ran through his body till it settled about his heart.
Till then his sole thought had been for Ameera. He began to realize that
there was someone else in the world, but he could not feel that it was
a veritable son with a soul. He sat down to think, and Ameera dozed
"Get hence, sahib," said her mother under her breath. "It is not good
that she should find you here on waking. She must be still."
"I go," said Holden submissively. "Here be rupees. See that my baba gets
fat and finds all that he needs."
The chink of the silver roused Ameera. "I am his mother, and no
hireling," she said weakly. "Shall I look to him more or less for the
sake of money? Mother, give it back. I have borne my lord a son."
The deep sleep of weakness came upon her almost before the sentence was
completed. Holden went down to the courtyard very softly with his heart
at ease. Pir Khan, the old watchman, was chuckling with delight. "This
house is now complete," he said, and without further comment thrust
into Holden's hands the hilt of a saber worn many years ago when he,
Pir Khan, served the Queen in the police. The bleat of a tethered goat
came from the well curb.
"There be two," said Pir Khan, "two goats of the best. I bought them,
and they cost much money; and since there is no birth party assembled
their flesh will be all mine. Strike craftily, sahib! "Tis an
ill-balanced saber at the best. Wait till they raise their heads from
cropping the marigolds."
"And why?" said Holden, bewildered.
"For the birth sacrifice. What else? Otherwise the child being unguarded
from fate may die. The Protector of the Poor knows the fitting words to
Holden had learned them once with little thought that he would ever
speak them in earnest. The touch of the cold saber-hilt in his palm
turned suddenly to the clinging grip of the child upstairs--the child
that was his own son--and a dread of loss filled him.
"Strike!" said Pir Khan. "Never life came into the world but life was
paid for it. See, the goats have raised their heads. Now! With a drawing
Hardly knowing what he did Holden cut twice as he muttered the Mahomedan
prayer that runs: "Almighty! In place of this my son I offer life for
life, blood for blood, head for head, bone for bone, hair for hair, skin
for skin." The waiting horse snorted and bounded in his pickets at the
smell of the raw blood that spurted over Holden's riding-boots.
"Well smitten!" said Pir Khan, wiping the saber. "A swordsman was lost
in thee. Go with a light heart, Heaven-born. I am thy servant, and the
servant of thy son. May the Presence live a thousand years and . . . the
flesh of the goats is all mine?" Pir Khan drew back richer by a month's
pay. Holden swung himself into the saddle and rode off through the
low-hanging wood smoke of the evening. He was full of riotous exultation,
alternating with a vast vague tenderness directed towards no particular
object, that made him choke as he bent over the neck of his uneasy
horse. "I never felt like this in my life," he thought. "I'll go to
the club and pull myself together."
A game of pool was beginning, and the room was full of men. Holden
entered, eager to get to the light and the company of his fellows,
singing at the top of his voice--
In Baltimore a-walking, a lady I did meet!
"Did you?" said the club secretary from his corner. "Did she happen to
tell you that your boots were wringing wet? Great goodness, man, it's
"Bosh!" said Holden, picking his cue from the rack. "May I cut in? It's
dew. I've been riding through high crops. My faith! my boots are in a
And if it be a girl she shall wear a wedding ring,
And if it be a boy he shall fight for his king,
With his dirk, and his cap, and his little jacket blue,
He shall walk the quarter-deck--
"Yellow on blue--green next player," said the marker monotonously.
"He shall walk the quarter-deck--Am I green, marker? He shall walk the
quarter-deck--eh! that's a bad shot--As his daddy used to do!"
"I don't see that you have anything to crow about," said a zealous
junior civilian acidly. "The Government is not exactly pleased with
your work when you relieved Sanders."
"Does that mean a wigging from headquarters?" said Holden with an
abstracted smile. "I think I can stand it."
The talk beat up round the ever-fresh subject of each man's work,
and steadied Holden till it was time to go to his dark empty bungalow,
where his butler received him as one who knew all his affairs. Holden
remained awake for the greater part of the night, and his dreams were
"How old is he now?"
"Ya illah! What a man's question! He is all but six weeks old; and on
this night I go up to the housetop with thee, my life, to count the
stars. For that is auspicious. And he was born on a Friday under the
sign of the sun, and it has been told to me that he will outlive us
both and get wealth. Can we wish for aught better, beloved?"
"There is nothing better. Let us go up to the roof, and thou shalt count
the stars--but a few only, for the sky is heavy with cloud."
"The winter rains are late, and maybe they come out of season. Come,
before all the stars are hid. I have put on my richest jewels."
"Thou hast forgotten the best of all."
"Ai! Ours. He comes also. He has never yet seen the skies."
Ameera climbed the narrow staircase that led to the flat roof. The
child, placid and unwinking, lay in the hollow of her right arm,
gorgeous in silver-fringed muslin with a small skullcap on his
head. Ameera wore all that she valued most. The diamond nose-stud
that takes the place of the Western patch in drawing attention to
the curve of the nostril, the gold ornament in the center of the
forehead studded with tallow-drop emeralds and flawed rubies, the
heavy circlet of beaten gold that was fastened round her neck by
the softness of the pure metal, and the chinking curb-patterned
silver anklets hanging low over the rosy anklebone. She was
dressed in jade-green muslin as befitted a daughter of the Faith,
and from shoulder to elbow and elbow to wrist ran bracelets of
silver tied with floss silk, frail glass bangles slipped over the
wrist in proof of the slenderness of the hand, and certain
heavy gold bracelets that had no part in her country's ornaments
but, since they were Holden's gift and fastened with a cunning
European snap, delighted her immensely.
They sat down by the low white parapet of the roof, overlooking
the city and its lights.
"They are happy down there," said Ameera. "But I do not think that
they are as happy as we. Nor do I think the white mem-log are as happy.
"I know they are not."
"How dost thou know?"
"They give their children over to the nurses."
"I have never seen that," said Ameera with a sigh, "nor do I wish to
see. Ahi!"--she dropped her head on Holden's shoulder--"I have counted
forty stars, and I am tired. Look at the child, love of my life, he is
The baby was staring with round eyes at the dark of the heavens. Ameera
placed him in Holden's arms, and he lay there without a cry.
"What shall we call him among ourselves?" she said. "Look! Art thou
ever tired of looking? He carries thy very eyes. But the mouth--"
"Is thine, most dear. Who should know better than I?"
"'Tis such a feeble mouth. Oh, so small! And yet it holds my heart
between its lips. Give him to me now. He has been too long away."
"Nay, let him lie; he has not yet begun to cry."
"When he cries thou wilt give him back--eh? What a man of mankind thou
art! If he cried he were only the dearer to me. But, my life, what
little name shall we give him?"
The small body lay close to Holden's heart. It was utterly helpless and
very soft. He scarcely dared to breathe for fear of crushing it. The
caged green parrot that is regarded as a sort of guardian-spirit in most
native households moved on its perch and fluttered a drowsy wing.
"There is the answer," said Holden. "Mian Mittu has spoken. He shall be
the parrot. When he is ready he will talk mightily and run about. Mian
Mittu is the parrot in thy--in the Mussulman tongue, is it not?"
"Why put me so far off?" said Ameera fretfully. "Let it be like unto
some English name--but not wholly. For he is mine."
"Then call him Tota, for that is likest English."
"Ay, Tota, and that is still the parrot. Forgive me, my lord, for a
minute ago, but in truth he is too little to wear all the weight of
Mian Mittu for name. He shall be Tota--our Tota to us. Hearest thou,
O small one? Littlest, thou art Tota." She touched the child's cheek,
and he waking wailed, and it was necessary to return him to his mother,
who soothed him with the wonderful rhyme of Are koko, Jare koko! which
Oh crow! Go crow! Baby's sleeping sound,
And the wild plums grow in the jungle, only a penny a pound.
Only a penny a pound, baba, only a penny a pound.
Reassured many times as to the price of those plums, Tota cuddled
himself down to sleep. The two sleek, white well-bullocks in the
courtyard were steadily chewing the cud of their evening meal; old
Pir Khan squatted at the head of Holden's horse, his police saber
across his knees, pulling drowsily at a big water-pipe that croaked
like a bullfrog in a pond. Ameera's mother sat spinning in the lower
veranda, and the wooden gate was shut and barred. The music of a
marriage procession came to the roof above the gentle hum of the
city, and a string of flying foxes crossed the face of the low moon.
"I have prayed," said Ameera after a long pause, "I have prayed for two
things. First, that I may die in thy stead if thy death is demanded, and
in the second that I may die in the place of the child. I have prayed to
the Prophet and to Beebee Miriam [the Virgin Mary]. Thinkest thou either
"From thy lips who would not hear the lightest word?"
"I asked for straight talk, and thou hast given me sweet talk. Will my
prayers be heard?"
"How can I say? God is very good."
"Of that I am not sure. Listen now. When I die, or the child dies, what
is thy fate? Living, thou wilt return to the bold white mem-log, for
kind calls to kind."
"With a woman, no; with a man it is otherwise. Thou wilt in this life,
later on, go back to thine own folk. That I could almost endure, for
I should be dead. But in thy very death thou wilt be taken away to a
strange place and a paradise that I do not know."
"Will it be paradise?"
"Surely, for who would harm thee? But we two--I and the child--shall
be elsewhere, and we cannot come to thee, nor canst thou come to us.
In the old days, before the child was born, I did not think of these
things; but now I think of them always. It is very hard talk."
"It will fall as it will fall. Tomorrow we do not know, but today
and love we know well. Surely we are happy now."
"So happy that it were well to make our happiness assured. And thy
Beebee Miriam should listen to me; for she is also a woman. But then
she would envy me! It is not seemly for men to worship a woman."
Holden laughed aloud at Ameera's little spasm of jealousy.
"Is it not seemly? Why didst thou not turn me from worship of thee,
"Thou a worshipper! And of me? My king, for all thy sweet words, well
I know that I am thy servant and thy slave, and the dust under thy
feet. And I would not have it otherwise. See!"
Before Holden could prevent her she stooped forward and touched his
feet; recovering herself with a little laugh she hugged Tota closer to
her bosom. Then, almost savagely--
"Is it true that the bold white mem-log live for three times the length
of my life? Is it true that they make their marriages not before they
are old women?"
"They marry as do others--when they are women."
"That I know, but they wed when they are twenty-five. Is that true?"
"That is true."
"Ya illah! At twenty-five! Who would of his own will take a wife even
of eighteen? She is a woman--aging every hour. Twenty-five! I shall
be an old woman at that age, and--Those mem-log remain young for ever.
How I hate them!" "What have they to do with us?"
"I cannot tell. I know only that there may now be alive on this earth a
woman ten years older than I who may come to thee and take thy love ten
years after I am an old woman, gray-headed, and the nurse of Tota's son.
That is unjust and evil. They should die too."
"Now, for all thy years thou art a child, and shalt be picked up and
carried down the staircase."
"Tota! Have a care for Tota, my lord! Thou at least art as foolish as
any babe!" Ameera tucked Tota out of harm's way in the hollow of her
neck, and was carried downstairs laughing in Holden's arms, while Tota
opened his eyes and smiled after the manner of the lesser angels.
He was a silent infant, and, almost before Holden could realize that he
was in the world, developed into a small gold-colored little god and
unquestioned despot of the house overlooking the city. Those were months
of absolute happiness to Holden and Ameera--happiness withdrawn from
the world, shut in behind the wooden gate that Pir Khan guarded. By
day Holden did his work with an immense pity for such as were not so
fortunate as himself, and a sympathy for small children that amazed and
amused many mothers at the little station gatherings. At nightfall he
returned to Ameera--Ameera, full of the wondrous doings of Tota; how
he had been seen to clap his hands together and move his fingers with
intention and purpose--which was manifestly a miracle--how later, he
had of his own initiative crawled out of his low bedstead onto the
floor and swayed on both feet for the space of three breaths.
"And they were long breaths, for my heart stood still with delight,"
Then Tota took the beasts into his councils--the well-bullocks, the
little gray squirrels, the mongoose that lived in a hole near the well,
and especially Mian Mittu, the parrot, whose tail he grievously pulled,
and Mian Mittu screamed till Ameera and Holden arrived.
"O villain! Child of strength! This to thy brother on the housetop!
Tobah, tobah! Fie! Fie! But I know a charm to make him wise as Suleiman
and Aflatoun [Solomon and Plato]. Now look," said Ameera. She drew from
an embroidered bag a handful of almonds. "See! we count seven. In the
name of God!"
She placed Mian Mittu, very angry and rumpled, on the top of his cage,
and seating herself between the babe and the bird she cracked and peeled
an almond less white than her teeth. "This is a true charm, my life, and
do not laugh. See! I give the parrot one half and Tota the other." Mian
Mittu with careful beak took his share from between Ameera's lips, and
she kissed the other half into the mouth of the child, who ate it slowly
with wondering eyes. "This I will do each day of seven, and without
doubt he who is ours will be a bold speaker and wise. Eh, Tota, what
wilt thou be when thou art a man and I am gray-headed?" Tota tucked his
fat legs into adorable creases. He could crawl, but he was not going to
waste the spring of his youth in idle speech. He wanted Mian Mittu's
tail to tweak.
When he was advanced to the dignity of a silver belt--which, with a
magic square engraved on silver and hung round his neck, made up the
greater part of his clothing--he staggered on a perilous journey down
the garden to Pir Khan and proffered him all his jewels in exchange
for one little ride on Holden's horse, having seen his mother's mother
chaffering with peddlars in the veranda. Pir Khan wept and set the
untried feet on his own gray head in sign of fealty, and brought the
bold adventurer to his mother's arms, vowing that Tota would be a
leader of men ere his beard was grown.
One hot evening, while he sat on the roof between his father and mother
watching the never-ending warfare of the kites that the city boys flew,
he demanded a kite of his own with Pir Khan to fly it, because he had
a fear of dealing with anything larger than himself, and when Holden
called him a "spark," he rose to his feet and answered slowly in defence
of his new-found individuality, "Hum'park nahin hai. Hum admi hai [I
am no spark, but a man]."
The protest made Holden choke and devote himself very seriously to a
consideration of Tota's future. He need hardly have taken the trouble.
The delight of that life was too perfect to endure. Therefore it was
taken away as many things are taken away in India--suddenly and without
warning. The little lord of the house, as Pir Khan called him, grew
sorrowful and complained of pains who had never known the meaning of
pain. Ameera, wild with terror, watched him through the night, and
in the dawning of the second day the life was shaken out of him by
fever--the seasonal autumn fever. It seemed altogether impossible
that he could die, and neither Ameera nor Holden at first believed the
evidence of the little body on the bedstead. Then Ameera beat her head
against the wall and would have flung herself down the well in the
garden had Holden not restrained her by main force.
One mercy only was granted to Holden. He rode to his office in broad
daylight and found waiting him an unusually heavy mail that demanded
concentrated attention and hard work. He was not, however, alive to
this kindness of the gods.
The first shock of a bullet is no more than a brisk pinch. The wrecked
body does not send in its protest to the soul till ten or fifteen
seconds later. Holden realized his pain slowly, exactly as he had
realized his happiness, and with the same imperious necessity for hiding
all trace of it. In the beginning he only felt that there had been a
loss, and that Ameera needed comforting, where she sat with her head on
her knees shivering as Mian Mittu from the housetop called, Tota! Tota!
Tota! Later all his world and the daily life of it rose up to hurt him.
It was an outrage that any one of the children at the bandstand in the
evening should be alive and clamorous, when his own child lay dead. It
was more than mere pain when one of them touched him, and stories told
by over-fond fathers of their children's latest performances cut him to
the quick. He could not declare his pain. He had neither help, comfort,
nor sympathy; and Ameera at the end of each weary day would lead him
through the hell of self-questioning reproach which is reserved for
those who have lost a child, and believe that with a little--just a
little--more care it might have been saved.
"Perhaps," Ameera would say, "I did not take sufficient heed. Did I,
or did I not? The sun on the roof that day when he played so long alone
and I was--ahi! braiding my hair--it may be that the sun then bred the
fever. If I had warned him from the sun he might have lived. But, oh my
life, say that I am guiltless! Thou knowest that I loved him as I love
thee. Say that there is no blame on me, or I shall die--I shall die!"
"There is no blame--before God, none. It was written and how could we
do aught to save? What has been, has been. Let it go, beloved."
"He was all my heart to me. How can I let the thought go when my arm
tells me every night that he is not here? Ahi! Ahi! O Tota, come back to
me--come back again, and let us be all together as it was before!"
"Peace, peace! For thine own sake, and for mine also, if thou lovest
"By this I know thou dost not care; and how shouldst thou? The white men
have hearts of stone and souls of iron. Oh, that I had married a man of
mine own people--though he beat me--and had never eaten the bread of an
"Am I an alien--mother of my son?"
"What else--Sahib? . . . Oh, forgive me--forgive! The death has driven
me mad. Thou art the life of my heart, and the light of my eyes, and the
breath of my life, and--and I have put thee from me, though it was but
for a moment. If thou goest away, to whom shall I look for help? Do not
be angry. Indeed, it was the pain that spoke and not thy slave."
"I know, I know. We be two who were three. The greater need therefore
that we should be one."
They were sitting on the roof as of custom. The night was a warm one in
early spring, and sheet lightning was dancing on the horizon to a broken
tune played by far-off thunder. Ameera settled herself in Holden's arms.
"The dry earth is lowing like a cow for the rain, and I--I am afraid. It
was not like this when we counted the stars. But thou lovest me as much
as before, though a bond is taken away? Answer!"
"I love more because a new bond has come out of the sorrow that we have
eaten together, and that thou knowest."
"Yea, I knew," said Ameera in a very small whisper. "But it is good to
hear thee say so, my life, who art so strong to help. I will be a child
no more, but a woman and an aid to thee. Listen! Give me my sitar and I
will sing bravely."
She took the light silver-studded sitar and began a song of the great
hero Rajah Rasalu. The hand failed on the strings, the tune halted,
checked, and at a low note turned off to the poor little nursery rhyme
about the wicked crow--
And the wild plums grow in the jungle, only a penny a pound.
Only a penny a pound, baba--only . . .
Then came the tears, and the piteous rebellion against fate till she
slept, moaning a little in her sleep, with the right arm thrown clear
of the body as though it protected something that was not there. It
was after this night that life became a little easier for Holden. The
ever-present pain of loss drove him into his work, and the work repaid
him by filling up his mind for nine or ten hours a day. Ameera sat alone
in the house and brooded, but grew happier when she understood that
Holden was more at ease, according to the custom of women. They touched
happiness again, but this time with caution.
"It was because we loved Tota that he died. The jealousy of God
was upon us," said Ameera. "I have hung up a large black jar before
our window to turn the evil eye from us, and we must make no
protestations of delight, but go softly underneath the stars, lest
God find us out. Is that not good talk, worthless one?"
She had shifted the accent on the word that means "beloved," in
proof of the sincerity of her purpose. But the kiss that followed
the new christening was a thing that any deity might have envied.
They went about henceforward saying, "It is naught, it is naught;"
and hoping that all the Powers heard.
The Powers were busy on other things. They had allowed thirty million
people four years of plenty wherein men fed well and the crops were
certain, and the birth rate rose year by year; the districts reported
a purely agricultural population varying from nine hundred to two
thousand to the square mile of the overburdened earth; and the Member
for Lower Tooting, wandering about India in pot-hat and frock-coat,
talked largely of the benefits of British rule and suggested as the
one thing needful the establishment of a duly qualified electoral
system and a general bestowal of the franchise. His long-suffering
hosts smiled and made him welcome, and when he paused to admire, with
pretty picked words, the blossom of the blood-red dhak tree that had
flowered untimely for a sign of what was coming, they smiled more
It was the Deputy Commissioner of Kot-Kumharsen, staying at
the club for a day, who lightly told a tale that made Holden's
blood run cold as he overheard the end.
"He won't bother anyone any more. Never saw a man so astonished
in my life. By Jove, I thought he meant to ask a question in the
House about it. Fellow passenger in his ship--dined next him--bowled
over by cholera and died in eighteen hours. You needn't laugh, you
fellows. The Member for Lower Tooting is awfully angry about it;
but he's more scared. I think he's going to take his enlightened
self out of India."
"I'd give a good deal if he were knocked over. It might keep
a few vestrymen of his kidney to their own parish. But what's
this about cholera? It's full early for anything of that kind,"
said the warden of an unprofitable salt lick.
"Don't know," said the Deputy Commissioner reflectively. "We've
got locusts with us. There's sporadic cholera all along the
north--at least we're calling it sporadic for decency's sake.
The spring crops are short in five districts, and nobody seems
to know where the rains are. It's nearly March now. I don't
want to scare anybody, but it seems to me that Nature's going
to audit her accounts with a big red pencil this summer."
"Just when I wanted to take leave, too!" said a voice across
"There won't be much leave this year, but there ought to be a
great deal of promotion. I've come in to persuade the Government
to put my pet canal on the list of famine-relief works. It's an
ill-wind that blows no good. I shall get that canal finished at
"Is it the old program then," said Holden; "famine, fever, and
"Oh no. Only local scarcity and an unusual prevalence of seasonal
sickness. You'll find it all in the reports if you live till next
year. You're a lucky chap. You haven't got a wife to send out of
harm's way. The hill stations ought to be full of women this
"I think you're inclined to exaggerate the talk in the bazars"
said a young civilian in the Secretariat. "Now I have observed--"
"I daresay you have," said the Deputy Commissioner, "but you've
a great deal more to observe, my son. In the meantime, I wish
to observe to you--" and he drew him aside to discuss the
construction of the canal that was so dear to his heart.
Holden went to his bungalow and began to understand that he
was not alone in the world, and also that he was afraid for
the sake of another--which is the most soul-satisfying fear
known to man.
Two months later, as the Deputy had foretold, Nature began
to audit her accounts with a red pencil. On the heels of the
spring reapings came a cry for bread, and the Government,
which had decreed that no man should die of want, sent wheat.
Then came the cholera from all four quarters of the compass.
It struck a pilgrim gathering of half a million at a sacred
shrine. Many died at the feet of their god; the others broke
and ran over the face of the land carrying the pestilence
with them. It smote a walled city and killed two hundred a
day. The people crowded the trains, hanging on to the footboards
and squatting on the roofs of the carriages, and the cholera
followed them, for at each station they dragged out the dead
and the dying. They died by the roadside, and the horses of
the Englishmen shied at the corpses in the grass. The rains
did not come, and the earth turned to iron lest man should
escape death by hiding in her. The English sent their wives
away to the hills and went about their work, coming forward
as they were bidden to fill the gaps in the fighting line.
Holden, sick with fear of losing his chiefest treasure on
earth, had done his best to persuade Ameera to go away with
her mother to the Himalayas.
"Why should I go?" said she one evening on the roof.
"There is sickness, and people are dying, and all the white mem-log have
"All of them?"
"All--unless perhaps there remain some old scald-head who
vexes her husband's heart by running risk of death."
"Nay; who stays is my sister, and thou must not abuse her,
for I will be a scald-head too. I am glad all the bold mem-log
"Do I speak to a woman or a babe? Go to the hills and I will
see to it that thou goest like a queen's daughter. Think, child.
In a red-lacquered bullock-cart, veiled and curtained, with
brass peacocks upon the pole and red cloth hangings. I will
send two orderlies for guard, and--"
"Peace! Thou art the babe in speaking thus. What use are those
toys to me? He would have patted the bullocks and played with
the housings. For his sake, perhaps--thou hast made me very
English--I might have gone. Now, I will not. Let the mem-log run."
"Their husbands are sending them, beloved."
"Very good talk. Since when hast thou been my husband to tell
me what to do? I have but borne thee a son. Thou art only all
the desire of my soul to me. How shall I depart when I know that
if evil befall thee by the breadth of so much as my littlest
fingernail--is that not small?--I should be aware of it though
I were in paradise. And here, this summer thou mayest die--ai,
janee, die! and in dying they might call to tend thee a white
woman, and she would rob me in the last of thy love!"
"But love is not born in a moment or on a deathbed!"
"What dost thou know of love, stoneheart? She would take
thy thanks at least and, by God and the Prophet and Beebee
Miriam the mother of thy Prophet, that I will never endure.
My lord and my love, let there be no more foolish talk of
going away. Where thou art, I am. It is enough." She put an
arm round his neck and a hand on his mouth.
There are not many happinesses so complete as those that are
snatched under the shadow of the sword. They sat together and
laughed, calling each other openly by every pet name that could
move the wrath of the gods. The city below them was locked up
in its own torments. Sulphur fires blazed in the streets; the
conches in the Hindu temples screamed and bellowed, for the
gods were inattentive in those days. There was a service in
the great Mahomedan shrine, and the call to prayer from the
minarets was almost unceasing. They heard the wailing in the
houses of the dead, and once the shriek of a mother who had
lost a child and was calling for its return. In the gray dawn
they saw the dead borne out through the city gates, each
litter with its own little knot of mourners. Wherefore they
kissed each other and shivered.
It was a red and heavy audit, for the land was very sick and
needed a little breathing space ere the torrent of cheap life
should flood it anew. The children of immature fathers and
undeveloped mothers made no resistance. They were cowed
and sat still, waiting till the sword should be sheathed
in November if it were so willed. There were gaps among the
English, but the gaps were filled. The work of superintending
famine relief, cholera sheds, medicine distribution, and what
little sanitation was possible, went forward because it was
Holden had been told to keep himself in readiness to move to
replace the next man who should fall. There were twelve hours
in each day when he could not see Ameera, and she might die in
three. He was considering what his pain would be if he could
not see her for three months, or if she died out of his sight.
He was absolutely certain that her death would be demanded--so
certain that when he looked up from the telegram and saw Pir
Khan breathless in the doorway, he laughed aloud. "And?"
"When there is a cry in the night and the spirit flutters
into the throat, who has a charm that will restore? Come
swiftly, Heaven-born! It is the black cholera."
Holden galloped to his home. The sky was heavy with clouds,
for the long-deferred rains were near and the heat was stifling.
Ameera's mother met him in the courtyard, whimpering, "She is
dying. She is nursing herself into death. She is all but dead.
What shall I do, sahib?"
Ameera was lying in the room in which Tota had been born. She made
no sign when Holden entered, because the human soul is a very lonely
thing and, when it is getting ready to go away, hides itself in a
misty borderland where the living may not follow. The black cholera
does its work quietly and without explanation. Ameera was being
thrust out of life as though the Angel of Death had himself put
his hand upon her. The quick breathing seemed to show that she
was either afraid or in pain, but neither eyes nor mouth gave any
answer to Holden's kisses. There was nothing to be said or done.
Holden could only wait and suffer. The first drops of the rain
began to fall on the roof, and he could hear shouts of joy in the
The soul came back a little and the lips moved. Holden bent down
to listen. "Keep nothing of mine," said Ameera. "Take no hair
from my head. She would make thee burn it later on. That flame
I should feel. Lower! Stoop lower! Remember only that I was thine
and bore thee a son. Though thou wed a white woman tomorrow, the
pleasure of receiving in thy arms thy first son is taken from thee
foever. Remember me when thy son is born--the one that shall
carry thy name before all men. His misfortunes be on my head. I
bear witness--I bear witness"--the lips were forming the words
on his ear--"that there is no God but--thee, beloved!"
Then she died. Holden sat still, and all thought was taken from
him--till he heard Ameera's mother lift the curtain.
"Is she dead, sahib?"
"She is dead."
"Then I will mourn, and afterwards take an inventory of the
furniture in this house. For that will be mine. The sahib does
not mean to resume it? It is so little, so very little, sahib,
and I am an old woman. I would like to lie softly."
"For the mercy of God be silent a while. Go out and mourn where
I cannot hear."
"Sahib, she will be buried in four hours."
"I know the custom. I shall go ere she is taken away. That matter
is in thy hands. Look to it, that the bed on which--on which she
"Aha! That beautiful red-lacquered bed. I have long desired--"
"That the bed is left here untouched for my disposal. All else
in the house is thine. Hire a cart, take everything, go hence,
and before sunrise let there be nothing in this house but that
which I have ordered thee to respect."
"I am an old woman. I would stay at least for the days of
mourning, and the rains have just broken. Whither shall I go?"
"What is that to me? My order is that there is a going. The
house gear is worth a thousand rupees and my orderly shall
bring thee a hundred rupees tonight."
"That is very little. Think of the cart hire."
"It shall be nothing unless thou goest, and with speed. O woman,
get hence and leave me with my dead!"
The mother shuffled down the staircase, and in her anxiety to take
stock of the house fittings forgot to mourn. Holden stayed by
Ameera's side and the rain roared on the roof. He could not think
connectedly by reason of the noise, though he made many attempts
to do so. Then four sheeted ghosts glided dripping into the room
and stared at him through their veils. They were the washers of
the dead. Holden left the room and went out to his horse. He had
come in a dead, stifling calm through ankle-deep dust. He found
the courtyard a rain-lashed pond alive with frogs; a torrent of
yellow water ran under the gate, and a roaring wind drove the
bolts of the rain like buckshot against the mud walls. Pir Khan
was shivering in his little hut by the gate, and the horse was
stamping uneasily in the water.
"I have been told the sahib's order," said Pir Khan. "It is well.
This house is now desolate. I go also, for my monkey-face would be
a reminder of that which has been. Concerning the bed, I will bring
that to thy house yonder in the morning; but remember, sahib, it
will be to thee a knife turning in a green wound. I go upon a
pilgrimage, and I will take no money. I have grown fat in the
protection of the Presence whose sorrow is my sorrow. For the
last time I hold his stirrup."
He touched Holden's foot with both hands and the horse sprang out
into the road, where the creaking bamboos were whipping the sky and
all the frogs were chuckling. Holden could not see for the rain in
his face. He put his hands before his eyes and muttered--
"Oh you brute! You utter brute!"
The news of his trouble was already in his bungalow. He read the
knowledge in his butler's eyes when Ahmed Khan brought in food,
and for the first and last time in his life laid a hand upon his
master's shoulder, saying, "Eat, sahib, eat. Meat is good
against sorrow. I also have known. Moreover the shadows come and go,
sahib; the shadows come and go. These be curried eggs."
Holden could neither eat nor sleep. The heavens sent down eight
inches of rain in that night and washed the earth clean. The waters
tore down walls, broke roads, and scoured open the shallow graves
on the Mahomedan burying ground. All next day it rained, and Holden
sat still in his house, considering his sorrow. On the morning of the
third day he received a telegram which said only, "Ricketts, Myndonie.
Dying. Holden relieve. Immediate." Then he thought that before he
departed he would look at the house wherein he had been master and
lord. There was a break in the weather, and the rank earth steamed
He found that the rains had torn down the mud pillars of the
gateway, and the heavy wooden gate that had guarded his life
hung lazily from one hinge. There was grass three inches high
in the courtyard; Pir Khan's lodge was empty, and the sodden
thatch sagged between the beams. A gray squirrel was in possession
of the veranda, as if the house had been untenanted for thirty
years instead of three days. Ameera's mother had removed everything
except some mildewed matting. The tick-tick of the little scorpions
as they hurried across the floor was the only sound in the house.
Ameera's room and the other one where Tota had lived were heavy
with mildew; and the narrow staircase leading to the roof was
streaked and stained with rain-borne mud. Holden saw all these
things, and came out again to meet in the road Durga Dass, his
landlord--portly, affable, clothed in white muslin, and driving
a Cee-spring buggy. He was overlooking his property to see how
the roofs stood the stress of the first rains.
"I have heard," said he, "you will not take this place any more,
"What are you going to do with it?"
"Perhaps I shall let it again."
"Then I will keep it on while I am away."
Durga Dass was silent for some time. "You shall not take it
on, sahib," he said. "When I was a young man I also--but
today I am a member of the Municipality. Ho! Ho! No. When
the birds have gone what need to keep the nest? I will have it
pulled down--the timber will sell for something always. It shall
be pulled down, and the Municipality shall make a road across,
as they desire, from the burning ghat to the city wall, so that
no man may say where this house stood."
~~~~~~~ THE END ~~~~~~~