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 are they?’
‘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 spruce-branches.’
‘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, burning—burning—burning.
This was how things befell; and the Policeman’s Diary will bear me out.
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 making one.
‘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 away.’
‘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 Monkey’s Head.
‘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.