His Brother’s Keeper

(notes edited by David Page)

Publication history

First published in The Week’s News, 7 April 1888. Collected in Abaft the Funnel (Unauthorised and Authorised Editions), 1909.

The story

The setting is a Club where only three members are present on this particular occasion. The conversation turns to the hot-weather topic of Sudden Death and its desirability.

One of the three men, Dallston (nicknamed Martha), tells a story which he swears is true, about a man on the Frontier who told him that he had died whilst he was suffering from a dose of fever. When the fever was at its height, it struck him that it would be a good thing to die, and so he got up, loaded his revolver, and “let fly, with the muzzle at his temple. The thing didn’t go off, so he turned it up and found he’d forgot to load one chamber.” He rectified this mistake, but again the gun missed fire, and so in desperation he took hold of the gun by the muzzle and hit himself over the head with the butt, which knocked him silly and he thought he was dead. “He went clean off his head till the fever wore out.”

Saveloy, the third member and the latest to arrive that evening, now told a story, which he also swore was true, about his experiences when working with a rather unpleasant and unclean individual named Stovey whilst building the Utamamula Canal. Stovey got it into his head that he would commit suicide, but gave his intentions away eventually by changing his habits one evening – “said ‘Good night’ after dinner, and got up and shook hands with me.” “. . . If he hadn’t shaken hands I’d have taken no notice, I suppose. This unusual effusion put me on my guard.”

After disabling Stovey’s rifle that evening by knocking out the breech-pin, Saveloy frustrates other attempts at suicide by Stovey trying to borrow his razors, by trying to take an overdose of chlorodyne (a patent medicine which included morphine, chloroform and cannabis in its ingredients), and by having a new breech-pin made in secret by an Indian blacksmith.

After hearing Stovey file the pin to fit, Saveloy rushes into Stovey’s room and asks to borrow the rifle to get rid of an invented pariah dog in his room. On returning, followed by Stovey, he is dismayed to see that there is a pariah dog sitting on his bed, and in his confusion, throws the rifle out of the window without hitting the dog. “Stovey tried to recover himself and pass it all over, but he let me keep the gun and went to bed. About two days afterwards old Baggs [the Civil Surgeon] turned up on tour, . . . I don’t know whether Baggs or the pi [dog] did it, but he didn’t throw any more suicidal splints.”


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