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 Juseen Daze.’
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 back.’
‘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 leave.
‘I am withering away like a barked tree in the spring,’ moaned Athira.
‘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 bullets.’
‘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 Bahadur.’
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 the Policeman.
‘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.