In the Track of the Wandering Jew
by Henry Seton Merriman
What hope is ours—what hope? To find no mercy
After much war, and many travails done?
"Well, somebody must go; that is certain."
And more than one man looked at me. It was not because I could possibly be
that somebody, although I was young enough and of little enough
consequence. But Fortune had been busy with me. She had knocked all the
interest out of my life, and then she had proceeded to shower her fickle
favours upon me. I was by way of becoming a success in that line of life
wherein I had been cast. I had been mentioned in despatches, and somehow
the bullets had passed by on the other side. Her gracious Majesty had
written to me twice as her dearly beloved Thomas, and I was well up in my
In those days things were differently done in India. There was less
telegraphing here and there for instructions. There was more action and
less talk. The native gentleman did not sit on a jury then.
"Yes," said young Martello, "somebody must go. Question is—who?"
And they looked at me again.
"There be those in high places," I said, "who shall decide."
They laughed and made no answer. They were pleased to think that I should
have to decide which doctor should go to Capoo, where a sickness unknown
and incomprehensible had broken out. It was true that I was senior surgeon
of the division; indeed, I was surgeon-major of a tract of country as big
as Scotland. It is India now, but in the days of which I write the
question had not been settled with a turbulent native prince. We were, in
fact, settling that question.
Capoo was right in the heart of the new country, while we were in
occupation of a border town. Behind us lay India; in front, the Unknown.
The garrison of Capoo was small and self-important, but sickness made
itself conspicuous among its members. Their doctor—poor young Barber—died,
and the self-importance of the Capoo garrison oozed out of their
finger-ends. They sent down post-haste to us for help, and a special
letter addressed to me detailed symptoms of no human malady.
I had two men under me. The question seemed simple enough. One of them
would have to go. As to which one there was really no doubt whatever. The
duty fell upon Thurkow. Thurkow was junior. This might prove to be
Thurkow's opportunity, or—the other thing.
We all knew that he would be willing enough to go; nay, he would be eager.
But Thurkow's father was in command, which made all the difference.
While we were thinking over these things an orderly appeared at the
"Brigadier would like to see you, sir," he said to me. And I had to throw
away the better half of a first-class manilla.
The brigadier's quarters were across a square in the centre of a long
rambling palace, for which a handsome rent was duly paid. We were not
making war. On the contrary, we were forcing peace down the throat of the
native prince on the point of a sword.
Everything was upon a friendly footing. We were not an invading force. Oh,
no! we were only the escort of a political officer. We had been quartered
in this border town for more than a year, and the senior officers'
lady-wives had brought their lares and penates in three bullock-carts
I suppose we were objects of envy. We had all the excitement of novelty
without any of the penalties of active warfare. We were strong enough to
make an awful example of the whole Principality at a day's notice, and the
Principality knew it, which kept bazaar prices down and made the coloured
brother remember the hue of his cheek.
In the palace there were half a dozen officers' quarters, and these had
been apportioned to the married; consequently the palace had that air of
homeliness which is supposed to be lacking in the quarters of single men.
As I was crossing the square I heard some one running after me, and,
turning, I faced Fitz. Fitz Marner—usually called Fitz—was my
second in command and two years my junior. He was quite a different sort
of man to myself, and, if I may say so, a much better man. However, I am
not going to talk about myself more than I can help this time. Some day I
shall, and then I shall have a portrait on the cover. This is an age of
portraits. But some day the British public will wake up and will refuse to
read the works of a smug-faced man in spectacles who tries to make them
believe that he is doughty, fearless, and beloved of beautiful damsels.
The bookstalls are full to-day of works written in the first person
singular, and relating deeds of the utmost daring; while on the cover is a
portrait of the author—the aforesaid smug man in spectacles—who
has not the good sense to suppress himself.
Fitz was tall and lithe. He had a large brown moustache and pleasantly
thoughtful eyes. His smile was the kindliest I have ever met. Moreover, a
modester man than Fitz never breathed. He had a way of carrying his chin
rather low, so that when he looked at one he had to raise his eyes, which
imparted a pleasing suggestion of attention to his face. It always seemed
to me that Fitz listened more carefully to what was said to him than other
men are in the habit of doing.
"Say, doctor," he said, looking up at me in his peculiar thoughtful way,
"give me a chance."
I knew what he meant. He wanted me to send him to a certain death instead
of young Thurkow. Those little missions to that bourne from whence no
traveller returns are all in the work of a soldier's life, and we two were
soldiers, although ours was the task of repairing instead of doing the
damage. Every soldier-man and most civilians know that it is sometimes the
duty of a red-coat to go and get killed without pausing to ask whether it
be expedient or not. One aide-de-camp may be sent on a mad attempt to get
through the enemy's lines, while his colleague rides quietly to the rear
with a despatch inside his tunic, the delivery of which to the
commander-in-chief will ensure promotion. And in view of this the
wholesome law of seniority was invented. The missions come in rotation,
and according to seniority the men step forward.
Fitz Marner's place was at my side, where, by the way, I never want a
better man, for his will was iron, and he had no nerves whatever. Capoo,
the stricken, was calling for help. Fitz and I knew more about cholera
than we cared to discuss just then. Some one must go up to Capoo to fight
a hopeless fight and die. And old Fitz—God bless him!—was
asking to go.
In reply I laughed.
"Not if I can help it. The fortune of war is the same for all."
Fitz tugged at his moustache and looked gravely at me.
"It is hard on the old man," he said. "It is more than you can expect."
"Much," I answered. "I gave up expecting justice some years ago. I am
sorry for the brigadier, of course. He committed the terrible mistake of
getting his son into his own brigade, and this is the result. All that he
does to-night he does on his own responsibility. I am not inclined to help
him. If it had been you, I should not have moved an inch—you know
He turned half away, looking up speculatively at the yellow Indian moon.
"Yes," he muttered, "I know that."
And without another word he went back to the mess-room.
I went on and entered the palace. To reach the brigadier's quarters I had
to pass down the whole length of the building, and I was not in the least
surprised to see Elsie Matheson waiting for me in one of the passage-like
ante-rooms. Elsie Matheson was bound to come into this matter sooner or
later—I knew that; but I did not quite know in what capacity her
advent might be expected.
"What is this news from Capoo?" she asked, without attempting to disguise
her anxiety. Her father, assistant political officer in this affair, was
not at Capoo or near there. He was upstairs playing a rubber.
"Bad," I answered.
She winced, but turned no paler. Women and horses are always surprising
me, and they never surprise me more than when in danger. Elsie Matheson
was by no means a masculine young person. Had she been so, I should not
have troubled to mention her. For me, men cannot be too manly, nor women
"What is the illness they have?" she asked.
"I really cannot tell you, Elsie," I answered. "Old Simpson has written me
a long letter—he always had a fancy for symptoms, you know—but
I can make nothing of it. The symptoms he describes are quite impossible.
They are too scientific for me."
"You know it is cholera," she snapped out with a strange little break in
her voice which I did not like, for I was very fond of this girl.
"Perhaps it is," I answered.
She gave a funny little helpless look round her as if she wanted something
to lean against.
"And who will go?" she asked. She was watching me keenly.
"Ah—that does not rest with me."
"And if it did?"
"I should go myself."
Her face lighted up suddenly. She had not thought of that. I bore her no
ill-feeling, however. I did not expect her to love ME.
"But they cannot spare you," she was kind enough to say.
"Everybody can always be spared—with alacrity," I answered; "but it
is not a question of that. It is a question of routine. One of the others
will have to go."
"Which one?" she asked with a suddenly assumed indifference.
It was precisely the question in my own mind, but relative to a very
different matter. If the decision rested with Miss Matheson, which of
these two men would she send to Capoo? Perhaps I looked rather too keenly
into her face, for she turned suddenly away and drew the gauzy wrap she
had thrown over her evening dress more closely round her throat, for the
passages were cold.
"That does not rest with me," I repeated, and I went on towards the
brigadier's quarters, leaving her—a white shadow in the dimly
I found the chief at his own dinner-table with an untouched glass of wine
"This is a bad business," he said, looking at me with haggard eyes. I had
never quite realized before what an old man he was. His trim beard and
moustache had been white for years, but he had always been a hale man up
to his work—a fine soldier but not a great leader. There was a vein
of indolence in Brigadier-General Thurkow's nature which had the same
effect on his career as that caused by barnacles round a ship's keel. This
inherent indolence was a steady drag on the man's life. Only one interest
thoroughly aroused him—only one train of thought received the full
gift of his mind. This one absorbing interest was his son Charlie, and it
says much for Charlie Thurkow that we did not hate him.
The brigadier had lost his wife years before. All that belonged to ancient
history—to the old Company days before our time. To say that he was
absorbed in his son is to state the case in the mildest imaginable form.
The love in this old man's heart for his reckless, happy-souled offspring
was of that higher order which stops at nothing. There is a love that
worketh wonders, and the same love can make a villain of an honest man.
I looked at old Thurkow, sitting white-lipped behind the decanter, and I
knew that there was villainy in his upright, honest heart. He scarcely met
my eyes. He moved uneasily in his chair. All through a long life this man
had carried nobly the noblest name that can be given to any—the name
of gentleman. No great soldier, but a man of dauntless courage. No
strategist, but a leader who could be trusted with his country's honour.
Upright, honourable, honest, brave—and it had come to this. It had
come to his sitting shamefaced before a poor unknown sawbones—not
daring to look him in the face.
His duty was plain enough. Charlie Thurkow's turn had come. Charlie
Thurkow must be sent to Capoo—by his father's orders. But the old
man—the soldier who had never turned his back on danger—could
not do it.
We were old friends, this man and I. I owed him much. He had made my
career, and I am afraid I had been his accomplice more than once. But we
had never wronged any other man. Fitz had aided and abetted more than
once. It had been an understood thing between Fitz and myself that the
winds of our service were to be tempered to Charlie Thurkow, and I imagine
we had succeeded in withholding the fact from his knowledge. Like most
spoilt sons, Charlie was a little selfish, with that convenient blindness
which does not perceive how much dirty work is done by others.
But we had never deceived the brigadier. He was not easily deceived in
those matters which concerned his son. I knew the old man very well, and
for years I had been content to sit by the hour together and talk with him
of Charlie. To tell the honest truth, Master Charlie was a very ordinary
young man. I take it that a solution of all that was best in five Charles
Thurkows would make up one Fitz Marner.
There was something horribly pathetic in the blindness of this usually
keen old man on this one point. He would sit there stiffly behind the
decanter fingering his wine-glass, and make statements about Charlie which
would have made me blush had that accomplishment not belonged to my past.
A certain cheery impertinence which characterized Charlie was fondly set
down as savoir-faire and dash. A cheap wit was held to be brilliancy and
conversational finish. And somehow we had all fallen into the way of
humouring the brigadier. I never told him, for instance, that his son was
a very second-rate doctor and a nervous operator. I never hinted that many
of the cures which had been placed to his credit were the work of Fitz—that
the men had no confidence in Charlie, and that they were somewhat
justified in their opinion.
"This is a bad business," repeated the brigadier, looking hard at the
despatch that lay on the table before him.
"Yes," I answered.
He tossed the paper towards me and pointed to a chair.
"Sit down!" he said sharply. "Have you had any report from poor Barber?"
In response I handed him the beginning of an official report. I say the
beginning, because it consisted of four lines only. It was in Barber's
handwriting, and it broke off suddenly in the middle of a word before it
began to tell me anything. In its way it was a tragedy. Death had called
for Barber while he was wondering how to spell "nauseous." I also gave him
Colonel Simpson's letter, which he read carefully.
"What is it?" he asked suddenly, as he laid the papers aside.
"Officially—I don't know."
"I am afraid it is cholera."
The brigadier raised his glass of claret a few inches from the table, but
his hand was too unsteady, and he set the glass down again untouched. I
was helplessly sorry for him. There was something abject and humiliating
in his averted gaze. Beneath his white moustache his lips were twitching
For a few moments there was silence, and I dreaded his next words. I was
trembling for his manhood.
"I suppose something must be done for them," he said at length, hoarsely,
and it was hard to believe that the voice was the voice of our leader—a
man dreaded in warfare, respected in peace.
"Yes," I answered uncompromisingly.
"Some one must go to them—"
Again there was that horrid silence, broken only by the tramp of the
sentinel outside the glassless windows.
"Who?" asked the brigadier, in little more than a whisper.
I suppose he expected it of me—I suppose he knew that even for him,
even in mercy to an old man whose only joy in life trembled at that moment
in the balance, I could not perpetrate a cruel injustice.
"It devolves on Charlie," I answered.
He gave one quick glance beneath his lashes, and again lowered his eyes. I
heard a long gasping sound, as if he found difficulty in breathing. He sat
upright, and threw back his shoulders with a pitiable effort to be strong.
"Is he up to the work?" he asked quietly.
"I cannot conscientiously say that he is not."
"D—n it, man," he burst out suddenly, "is there no way out of it?"
"What is it?"
"I will go."
"That is impossible," he answered with a sublime unconsciousness of his
own huge selfishness which almost made me laugh. This man would have asked
nothing for himself. For his son he had no shame in asking all. He would
have accepted my offer, I could see that, had it been possible.
At this moment the door opened, and Charlie Thurkow came in. His eyes were
bright with excitement, and he glanced at us both quickly. He was quite
well aware of his father's weakness in regard to himself, and I am afraid
he sometimes took advantage of it. He often ignored discipline entirely,
as he did in coming into the room at that moment.
I suppose there is in every one a sense of justice which accounts for the
subtle annoyance caused by the devotion of parents and others—a
devotion which has not the good sense to hide itself. There are few things
more annoying than an exhibition of unjust love. I rose at once. The
coming interview would be either painful or humiliating, and I preferred
not to assist at it.
As I went down the dark passages a man in a staff uniform, wearing spurs,
clanked past me. I did not know until later that it was Fitz, for I could
not see his face.
I went back to my quarters, and was busy for some time with certain
technicalities of my trade which are not worth detailing here. While I and
my two dispensers were still measuring out and mixing drugs, Fitz came to
"I am going to Capoo," he said quietly.
In his silent, quick way he was taking in all that we were doing. We were
packing medical stores for Capoo. I did not answer him, but waited for
further details. We could not speak openly before the two assistants at
that moment, and somehow we never spoke about it at all. I glanced up at
him. His face was pale beneath the sunburn. There was a drawn look just
above his moustache, as if his lips were held tightly.
"I volunteered," he said, "and the brigadier accepted my offer."
Whenever the word "duty" is mentioned, I think of Fitz to this day.
I said nothing, but went on with my work. The whole business was too
disgusting, too selfish, too unjust, to bear speaking of.
I had long known that Fitz loved Elsie Matheson. In my feeble way,
according to my scanty opportunity, I had endeavoured to assist him. But
her name had never been mentioned between us except carelessly in passing
conversation. I knew no details. I did not even know whether Elsie knew of
his love; but it was exceedingly likely that if she did, he had not told
her. As to her feelings, I was ignorant. She loved somebody, that much I
knew. One can generally tell that. One sees it in a woman's eyes. But it
is one thing to know that a woman loves, and quite another to find out
whom she loves. I have tried in vain more than once. I once thought that I
was the favoured person—not with Elsie, with quite another woman—but
I was mistaken. I only know that those women who have that in their eyes
which I have learnt to recognize are better women than those who lack it.
Fitz was the first to speak.
"Don't put all of that into one case," he said to one of the dispensers,
indicating a row of bottles that stood on the floor. "Divide the different
drugs over the cases, so that one or two of them can be lost without doing
His voice was quite calm and practical.
"When do you go?" I asked curtly. I was rather afraid of trusting my voice
too long, for Fitz was one of the few men who have really entered into my
life sufficiently to leave a blank space behind them. I have been a
rolling stone, and what little moss I ever gathered soon got knocked off,
but it left scars. Fitz left a scar.
"My orders are to start to-night—with one trooper," he answered.
"In half an hour."
"I will ride with you a few miles," I said.
He turned and went to his quarters, which were next to mine. I was still
at work when Charlie Thurkow came in. He had changed his dress clothes for
an old working suit. I was working in my evening dress—a subtle
"Do you want any help?" he asked. I could hear a grievance in his voice.
"Of course; get on packing that case; plenty of straw between the
He obeyed me, working slowly, badly, without concentration, as he always
"It's a beastly shame, isn't it?" he muttered presently.
"Yes," I answered, "it is."
I suppose he did not detect the sarcasm.
"Makes me look a fool," he said heatedly. "Why couldn't the governor let
me go and take my chance?"
The answer to this question being beyond my ken, I kept a discreet
silence. Giving him further instructions, I presently left my junior to
complete the task of packing up the necessary medicaments for Capoo.
In less than half an hour Fitz and I mounted our horses. A few of the
fellows came out of the messroom, cigar in mouth, to say good-bye to Fitz.
One or two of them called out "Good luck" as we left them. Each wish was
followed by a little laugh, as if the wisher was ashamed of showing even
so minute an emotion. It was, after all, all in the way of our business.
Many a time Fitz and I had stood idle while these same men rode out to
face death. It was Fitz's turn now—that was all.
The Sikh trooper was waiting for us in the middle of the square—in
the moonlight—a grand picturesque figure. A long-faced, silent man,
with deep eyes and a grizzled moustache. He wheeled his horse, and dropped
ten paces in our rear.
In the course of a varied experience Fitz and I had learnt to ride hard.
We rode hard that night beneath the yellow moon, through the sleeping,
odorous country. We both knew too well that cholera under canvas is like a
fire in a timber-yard. You may pump your drugs upon it, but without avail
unless the pumping be scientific. Fitz represented science. Every moment
meant a man's life. Our horses soon settled into their stride with a
pleasant creaking sound of warm leather and willing lungs.
The moon was above and behind us; we each had a galloping shadow beneath
our horse's forefeet. It was a sandy country, and the hoofs only produced
a dull thud. There was something exhilarating in the speed—in the
shimmering Indian atmosphere. A sense of envy came over me, and I dreaded
the moment when I should have to turn and ride soberly home, leaving Fitz
to complete his forty-five miles before daylight.
We were riding our chargers. They had naturally fallen into step, and
bounded beneath us with a regular, mechanical rhythm. Both alike had their
heads down, their shoulders forward, with that intelligent desire to do
well which draws a man's heart towards a horse in preference to any other
animal. I looked sideways at Fitz, and waited for him to speak. But he was
staring straight in front of him, and seemed lost in thought.
"You know," I said at length, "you have done that old man an ill-turn.
Even if you come back he will never forgive himself. He will never look
either of us straight in the face again."
"Can't help that," replied Fitz. "The thing—" He paused, as if
choosing his words. "If," he went on rather quickly, "the worst comes to
the worst, don't let people—ANY ONE—think that I did it
because I didn't care, because I set no value on my life. The thing was
forced upon me. I was asked to volunteer for it."
"All right," I answered, rather absent-mindedly perhaps. I was wondering
who "any one" might be, and also who had asked him to throw away his life.
The latter might, of course, be the brigadier. Surely it could not have
been Elsie. But, as I said before, I always was uncertain about women.
I did not say anything about hoping for the best. Fitz and I had left all
that nonsense behind us years before. We did our business amidst battle,
murder, and sudden death. Perhaps we were callous, perhaps we had only
learnt to value the thing at its true worth, and did not set much fear on
And then, I must ask you to believe, we fell to talking "shop." I knew a
little more about cholera than did Fitz, and we got quite interested in
our conversation. It is, I have found, only in books that men use the last
moment to advantage. Death has been my road-fellow all through life, and
no man has yet died in my arms saying quite the right thing. Some of them
made a joke, others were merely commonplace, as all men really are whether
living or dying.
When the time came for me to turn back, Fitz had said nothing fit for
post-mortem reproduction. We had talked unmitigated "shop," except the few
odd observations I have set down.
We shook hands, and I turned back at once. As I galloped I looked back,
and in the light of the great tropical moon I saw Fitz sitting forward in
his saddle as the horse rose to the slope of a hill, galloping away into
the night, into the unknown, on his mission of mercy. At his heels rode
the Sikh, enormous, silent, soldierly.
During my steady run home I thought of those things concerning my craft
which required immediate consideration. Would it be necessary to send down
to India for help? Cholera at Capoo might mean cholera everywhere in this
new unknown country. What about the women and children? The Wandering Jew
was abroad; would he wander in our direction, with the legendary curse
following on his heels? Was I destined to meet this dread foe a third
time? I admit that the very thought caused a lump to rise in my throat.
For I love Thomas Atkins. He is manly and honest according to his lights.
It does not hurt me very much to see him with a bullet through his lungs
or a sabre cut through the collar-bone down to the same part of his
anatomy. But it does hurt me exceedingly to see honest Thomas die between
the sheets—the death of any common civilian beggar. Thomas is too
good for that.
It was nearly three o'clock in the morning when I rode into the palace
square. All round I saw the sentinels, their bayonets gleaming in the
moonlight. A man was walking backwards and forwards in the middle of the
square by himself. When he heard me he came towards me. At first I thought
that it was my servant waiting to take the horse, but a moment later I
recognized Charlie Thurkow—recognized him by his fair hair, for he
was hatless. At the same time my syce roused himself from slumber in the
shadow of an arch, and ran forward to my stirrup.
"Come to the hospital!" said Thurkow, the moment I alighted. His voice was
dull and unnatural. I once heard a man speak in the same voice while
collecting his men for a rush which meant certain death. The man was duly
killed, and I think he was trembling with fear when he ran to his death.
"What is it?" I asked.
"I don't know."
We walked—almost ran—to the hospital, a long low building in
the palace compound. Charlie Thurkow led the way to a ward which we had
never used—a ward I had set apart for infectious cases. A man was
dozing in a long chair in the open window. As we entered he rose hastily
and brought a lamp. We bent over a bed—the only one occupied. The
occupant was a man I did not know. He looked like a Goorkha, and he was
dying. In a few moments I knew all that there was to know. I knew that the
Wandering Jew had passed our way.
"Yes," I said, rising from my knees at the bedside; "we have it."
Of the days that followed it is not my intention to say much. A woman once
told me that I was afraid of nothing. She was mistaken. If she chance to
read this and recognize it, I hope she will believe the assertion: I am,
and always have been, afraid of cholera—in India. In Europe it is a
different matter. The writing of those days would be unpleasant to me; the
reading would be still less pleasant to the reader.
Brigadier-General Thurkow rose to the occasion, as we all expected him to
do. It is one thing to send a man to a distant danger, and quite another
to go with him into a danger which is close at hand. Charlie Thurkow and I
were the only two doctors on the spot, and before help could reach us we
should probably all be dead or cured. There was no shirking now. Charlie
and I were at work night and day, and in the course of thirty-six hours
Charlie got interested in it. He reached the fighting point—that
crisis in an epidemic of which doctors can tell—that point where
there is a certain glowing sense of battle over each bed—where death
and the doctor see each other face to face—fight hand to hand for
The doctor loses his interest in the patient as a friend or a patient; all
his attention is centred on the life as a life, and a point to be scored
against the adversary Death.
We had a very bad time for two days. At the end of that time I had
officers bearing Her Majesty's commission serving under me as assistant
nurses, and then the women came into it. The first to offer herself was
the wife of a non-commissioned officer in the Engineers, who had been
through Netley. I accepted her. The second woman was Elsie Matheson. I
refused point blank.
"Sooner or later," she said, looking at me steadily with something in her
eyes which I could not make out, "you will have to take me."
"Does your father know you have come to me?" I retorted.
"Yes; I came with his consent."
I shook my head and returned to my writing. I was filling in a list of
terrific length. She did not go away, but stood in front of me with a
certain tranquillity which was unnatural under the circumstances.
"Do you want help?" she asked calmly.
"God knows I do."
"But not mine—?"
"Not yet, Elsie. I have not got so far as that yet."
I did not look up, and she stood quite still over me—looking down at
me—probably noting that the hair was getting a little thin on the
top of my head. This is not a joke. I repeat she was probably noting that.
People do note such things at such moments.
"If you do not take me," she said, in a singularly even voice, "I shall go
up to Capoo. Can you not see that that is the only thing that can save me
from going to Capoo—or going mad?"
I laid aside my pen, and looked up into her face, which she made no
pretence of hiding from me. And I saw that it was as she said.
"You can go to work at once," I said, "under Mrs. Martin, in ward number
When she had left me I did not go on filling in the list from the notes in
my pocket-book. I fell to wasting time instead. So it was Fitz. I was not
surprised, but I was very pleased. I was not surprised, because I have
usually found that the better sort of woman has as keen a scent for the
good men as we have. And I thought of old Fitz—the best man I ever
served with—fighting up at Capoo all alone, while I fought down in
the valley. There was a certain sense of companionship in the thought,
though my knowledge and experience told me that our chances of meeting
again were very small indeed.
We had not heard from Capoo. The conclusion was obvious: they had no one
Elsie Matheson soon became a splendid nurse. She was quite fearless—not
with dash, but with the steady fearlessness that comes from an
ever-present sense of duty, which is the best. She was kind and tender,
but she was a little absent. In spirit she was nursing at Capoo; with us
she was only in the body.
When Charlie Thurkow heard that she had gone into ward number four, he
displayed a sudden, singular anger.
"It's not fit for her," he said. "How could you do it?"
And I noticed that, so far as lay in his power, he kept the worst cases
away from number four.
It occasionally happens in life that duty is synonymous with inclination;
not often, of course, but occasionally. I twisted inclination round into
duty, and put Elsie to night work, while Charlie Thurkow kept the day
watches. I myself was forced to keep both as best I could.
Whenever I went into number four ward at night before (save the mark)
going to bed, I found Elsie Matheson waiting for me. It must be remembered
that she was quite cut off from the little world that surrounded us in the
palace. She had no means of obtaining news. Her only link with the outer
universe was an occasional patient brought in more dead than alive, and
too much occupied with his own affairs to trouble about those of other
"Any news?" she would whisper to me as we went round the beds together;
and I knew that she meant Capoo. Capoo was all the world for her. It is
strange how some little unknown spot on the earth will rise up and come
into our lives never to leave the memory again.
"Nothing," I replied with a melancholy regularity.
Once only she broke through her reserve—through the habit of bearing
pain in silence which she had acquired by being so much among dying men.
"Have you no opinion?" she asked, with a sharpness in her voice which I
forgave as I heard it.
"Upon what subject?"
"Upon... the chances."
I shrugged my shoulders.
"He is a good man—there is no better in India—that is all I
can say. Just hold the candle a little closer, will you, please? Thanks—yes—he
is quite dead."
We passed on to the next bed.
"It is both his duty and his inclination to take care of himself," I said
as we went—going back with her in the spirit to Capoo.
"How do you know it is his inclination?" she asked guardedly.
And I knew that I was on the right path. The vague message given to "any
one" by Fitz as he rode by my side that night—only a week before,
although it seemed to be months—that message was intended for Elsie.
It referred to something that had gone before, of which I had no
"Because he told me so," I answered.
And then we went on with our work. Charlie Thurkow was quite right. I knew
that all along. It was not fit for her. Elsie was too young, too gentle
and delicate for such a place as ward number four. I make no mention of
her beauty, for I took no heed of it then. It was there—but it had
nothing to do with this matter. Also I have never seen why women who are
blessed or cursed by beauty should be more considered in such matters, as
they undoubtedly are.
I was up and about all that night. The next morning rose gloomily, as if
the day was awakening unrefreshed by a feverish sleep. The heat had been
intense all night, and we could look for nothing but an intensification of
it when the sun rose with a tropical aggressiveness. I wanted to get my
reports filled in before lying down to snatch a little rest, and was still
at work when Charlie Thurkow came in to relieve me. He looked ghastly, but
we all did that, and I took no notice. He took up the ward-sheets and
glanced down the columns.
"Wish I had gone to Capoo," he muttered. "It couldn't have been worse than
I had finished my writing, and I rose. As I did so Charlie suddenly
clapped his hand to his hip.
"I say!" he exclaimed, "I say!"
He looked at me in a stupid way, and then suddenly he tottered towards me,
and I caught him.
"Old chap!" he exclaimed thickly, with his face against my shoulder, "I've
got it. Take me to number four."
He had seen by the list that there was a vacant cot in number four.
I carried him there, stumbling as I went, for I was weak from want of
Elsie had just gone to her room, and Mrs. Martin was getting the vacant
bed ready. I was by that bedside all day. All that I knew I did for
Charlie Thurkow. I dosed myself with more than one Indian drug to
stimulate the brain—to keep myself up to doing and thinking. This
was a white man's life, and God forgive me if I set undue store upon it as
compared with the black lives we were losing daily. This was a brain that
could think for the rest. There was more than one man's life wrapped up in
Charlie Thurkow's. One can never tell. My time might come at any moment,
and the help we had sent for could not reach us for another fortnight.
Charlie said nothing. He thanked me at intervals for some little service
rendered, and nearly all the time his eyes were fixed upon the clock. He
was reckoning with his own life. He did not want to die in the day, but in
the night. He was deliberately spinning out his life till the night nurse
came on duty. I suppose that in his superficial, happy-go-lucky way he
I pulled him through that day, and we managed to refrain from waking Elsie
up. At nightfall she came to her post. When she came into the room I was
writing a note to the brigadier. I watched her face as she came towards
us. There was only distress upon it—nothing else. Even women—even
beautiful women grow callous; thank Heaven! Charlie Thurkow gave a long
sigh of relief when she came.
My note was duly sent to the brigadier, and five minutes afterwards I went
out on to the verandah to speak to him. I managed to keep him out of the
room by a promise that he should be sent for later. I made no pretence
about it, and he knew that it was only the question of a few hours when he
walked back across the palace square to his quarters. I came back to the
verandah, and found Elsie waiting to speak to me.
"Will he die?" she asked.
There was a strange glitter in her eyes which I could not understand.
"Quite," I answered, forgetting to be professional. She looked at me for a
moment as if she were about to say something, and then she apparently
decided not to say it.
I went towards a long chair which stood on the verandah.
"I shall lie down here," I said, "and sleep for an hour."
"Yes, do," she answered almost gratefully.
"You will wake me if you want me?"
"Wake me when... the change comes."
In a few moments I was asleep. I do not know what woke me up. It seemed to
be very late. All the sounds of barrack life were hushed. The moon was
just up. I rose to my feet and turned to the open window. But there I
Elsie was kneeling by Charlie Thurkow's bed. She was leaning over him, and
I could see that she was kissing him. And I knew that she did not love
I kicked against the chair purposely. Elsie turned and looked towards me,
with her hand still resting on Charlie Thurkow's forehead. She beckoned me
to go to them, and I saw at once that he was much weaker. She was stroking
his hair gently. She either gave me credit for great discernment, or she
did not care what I thought.
I saw that the time had come for me to fulfil my promise to the brigadier,
and went out of the open window to send one of the sentinels for him. As I
was speaking to the man I heard the clatter of a horse's feet, and a Sikh
rode hard into the palace square. I went towards him, and he, recognizing
me, handed me a note which he extracted from the folds of his turban. I
opened the paper and read it by the light of the moon. My heart gave a
leap in my throat. It was from Fitz. News at last from Capoo.
"We have got it under," he wrote. "I am coming down to help you. Shall be
with you almost as soon as the bearer."
As I walked back towards the hospital the brigadier came running behind
me, and caught me up as I stepped in by the window. I had neither time nor
inclination just then to tell him that I had news from Capoo. The Sikh no
doubt brought official news which would reach their destination in due
course. And in the mean time Charlie Thurkow was dying.
We stood round that bed and waited silent, emotionless for the angel.
Charlie knew only too well that the end was very near. From time to time
he smiled rather wearily at one or the other of us, and once over his face
there came that strange look of a higher knowledge which I have often
noted, as if he knew something that we did not—something which he
had been forbidden to tell us.
While we were standing there the matting of the window was pushed aside,
and Fitz came softly into the dimly lighted room. He glanced at me, but
attempted no sort of salutation. I saw him exchange a long silent look
with Elsie, and then he took his station at the bedside next to Elsie, and
opposite to the brigadier, who never looked up.
Charlie Thurkow recognized him, and gave him one of those strangely
patronizing smiles. Then he turned his sunken eyes towards Elsie. He
looked at her with a gaze that became more and more fixed. We stood there
for a few minutes—then I spoke.
"He is dead," I said.
The brigadier raised his eyes and looked across to Fitz. For a second
these two men looked down into each other's souls, and I suppose Fitz had
his reward. I suppose the brigadier had paid his debt in full. I had been
through too many painful scenes to wish to prolong this. So I turned away,
and a general move was the result.
Then I saw that Elsie and Fitz had been standing hand-in-hand all the
So wags the world.