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One of the many lessons that the great Mother India instils into the hearts of her white foster children is to sympathise with one another’s troubles and misfortunes however trivial or however serious.
Therefore, when Mrs Arnold, the Collector’s wife at Usapore, was suddenly ordered home by the doctor, and Arnold could not get leave to go with her, it was sympathy with the husband’s lonely unhappiness that made Williamson offer to move over to Arnold’s bungalow and see him through the weary separation.
The offer was gratefully accepted, for the Arnolds had not been married long, and the man was missing his wife, and worrying about her ill-health to the verge of melancholia. So Williamson established himself in one half of the large, echoing bungalow, though there was no doubt that the move was somewhat inconvenient to himself; in fact, he admitted as much to me afterwards, when he was telling me of the horrible thing that happened while he was there.
But, being a thoroughly unselfish, good-hearted fellow, he thought little of his own inclinations and only endeavoured to prove a cheery companion, and help the other on from one English mail day to the other.
Arnold simply lived for the mail, and yet when his wife’s letters did come he would be almost afraid to open them, in case she might be worse, or anything bad had happened. Williamson sometimes found it very difficult to keep his friend’s spirits up to the mark, circumstances being unfavourable from every point of view. To begin with, Arnold himself was not in the best possible health, having had typhoid fever the previous year; he had the work of a large and turbulent district on his shoulders, no light burden; Usapore itself was a dismal, sandy little civil station; and, to crown it all, there seemed every prospect of the rains failing (which would mean a famine), and the heat was already beyond description.
However, the two men played mild tennis in the afternoons and whist in the baking little club in the evenings, and when they were alone they talked about Mrs Arnold’s last letter, and Arnold read bits of it aloud to Williamson, and always wound up by groaning over ‘his infernal luck.’
‘Why didn’t I take leave six months ago when I could have got it?’ he would reiterate, ‘And then Lilla wouldn’t have been ill, and I should not have felt such a worm myself. But I hung on to escape the hot weather. I’ve never felt really fit since I had typhoid, and I believe it has played the dickens with my heart. And then this anxiety about Lilla is simply driving me mad. I’m in such a funk that she makes light of things not to worry me, and doesn’t tell me what the doctors really say.’
But, in spite of these forebodings, Mrs Arnold’s letters continued to be very fairly satisfactory. She declared that she was better, that the air of Dover, where she was staying with her mother, was certainly doing her good, and the doctor hoped that in a few weeks she might be able to drop the role of invalid.
This sort of thing went on for several mails, and sometimes Arnold was in boisterous spirits, looking forward to his wife’s return with the advent of the cold weather, while at others he plunged into the lowest depths of depression.
Then at last, one fatal evening, the English mail brought a letter from Mrs Arnold saying that directly she could bear the move she was to go up to London to see a specialist. She besought her husband not to be anxious, the only reason for such a step being, she assured him, that the doctor thought she gained strength too slowly, and that, on the whole, it would be wiser to have the best advice.
Of course Arnold was in despair. That night, after eating no dinner, he sat outside on the plot of scorched grass in front of the house and surrendered himself to the gloomiest of views; and when bedtime came he refused to go in, saying he knew he should not sleep.
So Williamson lit another pipe and made up his mind to stay there too, because it was the kind of night in India when, if a man is not happy, he probably begins to wander about the compound with a revolver to shoot pariah dogs that bark and keep him awake, and sometimes, instead of a dead dog, it is the man who is found shot, through the roof of his mouth. So Williamson watched Arnold very carefully, and tried to induce him to talk instead of sitting huddled up in his chair, with his hands hanging down at his sides.
‘Buck up, old man!’ he said encouragingly. ‘If there’d been any bad news you would have had a telegram.’
‘She may not have seen the London man yet,’ replied Arnold. ‘She said in her letter she thought it would be a fortnight before she could go.’
‘Well, it’s more than a fortnight since that letter was written. You look at the black side of things too much. Besides,’ he added awkwardly, ‘she wouldn’t like it if she could see you now, Arnold. You know her one wish is that you shouldn’t worry.’
Arnold straightened himself wearily.
‘I know, I know,’ he said, as if ashamed of his weakness. ‘But when you care about a woman with all your heart and soul, Williamson, it’s hell when you think there’s any danger of losing her. Lilla is everything in the universe to me, and the parting from her was awful— our first parting! I wonder how a man manages to live out his life if his wife dies and he was really devoted to her—’ He paused, and there was a dreary silence, broken presently by the harsh scream of the brain fever bird rising to a desperate pitch and then subsiding.
‘You’ll laugh, perhaps, when I tell you,’ he went on hesitatingly; ‘but when she left me she said that if she died she would come straight to me first, and I gave her the same promise on my side. If anything happens to Lilla she will come herself and tell me. She will come and fetch me. I believe this with every atom of my being.’
Williamson did not laugh. He felt a little cold thrill run down his back, and actually caught himself looking nervously over his shoulder. He was not a superstitious man by any means, but Arnold’s voice sounded so unnatural; the surroundings looked so weird in the increasing light of the rising moon, which threw the long black shadow of a clump of bamboos across the dried-up patch of uneven grass; and the magnetic stillness in the thick, hot atmosphere was severed at intervals by the desperate cry of the brain fever bird, as it flew restlessly from tree to tree.
Williamson mentally called himself an ass. ‘You’d better go to bed, Arnold,’ he said bluntly; ‘and if you apply for sick leave I’m sure you’d get it.’
Arnold laughed a little.
‘Oh, I’m all right,’ he said, ‘and with a famine coming on I can’t well ask for leave unless I’m actually too ill to work, which I’m not, and I don’t think any doctor could honestly give me a certificate.’
Williamson thought otherwise, and determined to speak to the civil surgeon the next morning. In the meantime it was midnight, and if Arnold would only go to bed so much the better for them both.
‘Come along,’ he urged; ‘you’ll sleep all right if you go to bed now. The air will cool down very soon.’
They rose and went to their rooms, and shortly afterwards no sound was to be heard in the house or compound but the monotonous cry of the bird that would not rest.
Williamson undressed and threw himself on his bed. He listened at first to satisfy himself that Arnold was not moving about, and once he got up and crept to his friend’s door, but there was only silence, so he went back to his room, and presently fell into an uneasy sleep.
An hour or two later he was suddenly awakened by the loud sound of a voice calling. He sat up, the echo of what he had heard still ringing in his ears: ‘Lilla! Lilla!’ He could only conclude that Arnold had been shouting his wife’s name in his sleep, so he waited a few moments, and the brain fever bird’s discordant shriek rose and fell in the air. Perhaps that was what had disturbed him, the cry was not unlike the two syllables repeated over and over again.
He listened intently, and finally got up. He put on his slippers and, taking his hand lamp, made his way to Arnold’s open door. He did not speak, for if Arnold were asleep, it would never do to wake him, but he moved the curtain quietly to one side and looked into the room.
The punkah was swaying slowly to and fro, and Arnold was lying on his back, covered with a sheet. He seemed all right, but still Williamson was not quite satisfied. He carefully advanced, then stopped and looked apprehensively about him, sniffing the air, for it was full of a strong and unmistakable odour of chloroform.
The fear seized him that Arnold had committed suicide, and he hurried to the bedside. The smell of chloroform was overpowering, and, half choked with the fumes, he shouted at Arnold, and shook him desperately. There was no movement, no response. Faint and giddy, he rushed from the room, roused the servants and sent for the doctor, who, when he came, confirmed Williamson’s fear, and said that Arnold was dead.
‘Where is the bottle?’ he said, when all restoratives had failed and hope was at an end.
‘I couldn’t see any bottle,’ said Williamson, feeling as though he were in a nightmare. ‘I looked, but I couldn’t see anything. The smell was awful when I came into the room, and only a few minutes before I could have sworn I heard him shouting in his sleep. That was what woke me. It must have been hideously quick work.’
‘It would have been,’ said the doctor; ‘his heart was so weak, it would not have taken very much to kill him.’
Then you ought to have made him go on sick leave.’
‘I suggested it when his ordinary leave was refused, but he said he wasn’t bad enough, and I don’t know that he was, if he had let himself alone. And then, with the prospect of a famine, a man can’t conscientiously bolt unless he’s in a hopeless way;’ then, after a pause—‘Had he a medicine chest anywhere?’
‘I don’t think so, but we’ll look.’ They looked, but found nothing, and they also questioned the punkah- coolie, who could give them no information beyond the fact that he had fallen asleep, and he thought the sahib had shouted to wake him.
So the doctor said it was one of those mysteries which would probably never be explained. Arnold had certainly killed himself with chloroform, but had taken some extraordinary precaution beforehand that the bottle should not be discovered.
But early next morning a telegram came from London for Arnold, which was opened by Williamson and the doctor. It told them that Mrs Arnold had died while under chloroform, during an operation that had proved absolutely necessary.
‘There!’ cried Williamson, losing all self-control and beating his hands together like a maniac. ‘That explains it! That’s why there was no bottle—no trace of one! She came to fetch him—he said she would! He told me so only a few hours before. Oh! my God!’—and he sank into a chair, shuddering and shaking.
The doctor fetched some brandy.
‘My dear fellow!’ he said soothingly, ‘Pull yourself together. You’re over-strung. Drink this and go and get some sleep, or I shall be sending you home on sick leave next.’ Which he afterwards had to do, for Williamson was very ill, and for some weeks it was doubtful whether he would get over it. But he did recover, and was sent home, and just before he sailed he told me this story.