The Naulahka


Ye know the `Hundred Danger Time’ when, gay with paint and flowers,
Your household Gods are bribed to help the bitter, helpless hours;
You know the worn and rotten mat whereon your daughter lies;
You know the sootak-room unclean, the cell wherein she dies—

Dies, with the babble in her ear of midwife’s muttered charm,
Dies, ‘spite young Life that strains to stay, the suckling in her arm–
Dies in the three-times-heated air, scorched by the Birth-fire’s breath–
Foredoomed, you say, lest anguish lack, to haunt her home in death.
                      A Song of the Women

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‘DEAR FRIEND—That was very unkind of you, and you have made my life harder. I know I was weak. The child upset me. But I must do what I came for, and I want you to strengthen me, Nick, not hinder me. Don’t come for a few days, please. I need all I am or hope to be for the work I see opening here. I think I can really do some good. Let me, please. KATE.’

Tarvin read fifty different meanings into this letter, received the following morning, and read them out again. At the end of his conjectures he could be sure only of one thing—that in spite of that moment’s weakness, Kate was fixed upon her path. He could not yet prevail against her steadfast gentleness, and perhaps it would be better not to try. Talks in the verandah, and sentinel-like prowlings about her path when she went to the palace, were pleasant enough, but he had not come to Rhatore to tell her that he loved her. Topaz, in whose future the other half of his heart was bound up, knew that secret long ago, and—Topaz was waiting for the coming of the Three C.’s, even as Nick was waiting on Kate’s comings and goings. The girl was unhappy, overstrained, and despairing, but since—he thanked God always—he was at hand to guard her from the absolute shock of evil fate, she might well be left for the moment to Mrs. Estes’ comfort and sympathy..

She had already accomplished something in the guarded courts of the women’s quarters, for the Maharaj Kunwar’s mother had entrusted her only son’s life to her care (who could help loving and trusting Kate?); but for his own part, what had he done for Topaz beyond—he looked toward the city—playing pachisi with the Maharajah? The low morning sun flung the shadow of the resthouse before him. The commercial travellers came out one by one, gazed at the walled bulk of Rhatore, and cursed it. Tarvin mounted his horse, of which much more hereafter, and ambled toward the city to pay his respects to the Maharajah. It was through him, if through any one, that he must possess himself of the Naulahka; he had been anxiously studying him, and shrewdly measuring the situation, and he now believed that he had formed a plan through which he might hope to make himself solid with the Maharajah—a plan which, whether it brought him the Naulahka or not, would at least allow him the privilege of staying at Rhatore. This privilege certain broad hints of Colonel Nolan’s had seemed to Tarvin of late plainly to threaten, and it had become clear to him that he must at once acquire a practical and publishable object for his visit, if he had to rip up the entire State to find it. To stay, he must do something in particular. What he had found to do was particular enough; it should be done forthwith, and it should bring him first the Naulahka, and then—if he was at all the man he took himself for—Kate!

As he approached the gates he saw Kate, in a brown habit, riding with Mrs. Estes out of the missionary’s garden.

‘You needn’t be afraid, dear. I shan’t bother you,’ he said to himself, smiling at the dust-cloud rising behind her, as he slackened his pace. ‘But I wonder what’s taking you out so early.’

The misery within the palace walls which had sent her half weeping to Mrs. Estes represented only a phase of the work for which Kate had come. If the wretchedness was so great under the shadow of the throne, what must the common folk endure? Kate was on her way to the hospital.

‘There is only one native doctor at the hospital,’ Mrs. Estes was saying, as they went along, ‘and, of course, he’s only a native; that is to say, he is idle.’

‘How can any one be idle here?’ her companion cried, as the stored heat from under the city gates beat across their temples.

‘Every one grows idle so soon in Rhatore,’ returned Mrs. Estes, with a little sigh, thinking of Lucien’s high hopes and strenuous endeavours, long since subdued to a mild apathy.

Kate sat her horse with the assured seat of a Western girl who has learned to ride and to walk at the same time. Her well-borne little figure had advantages on horseback. The glow of resolve lighting her simply framed face at the moment lent it a spiritual beauty; and she was warmed by the consciousness that she drew near her purpose and the goal of two years’ working and dreaming. As they rounded a curve in the main street of the city, a crowd was seen waiting at the foot of a flight of red sandstone steps rising to the platform of a whitewashed house three storeys in height, on which appeared the sign, ‘State Dispensary.’ The letters leaned against one another, and drooped down over each side of the door.

A sense of the unreality of it all came over Kate as she surveyed the crowd of women, clad in vermilion, dull-red, indigo, saffron, blue, pink, and turquoise garments of raw silk. Almost every woman held a child on her hip, and a low wailing cry rose up as Kate drew rein. The women clustered about her stirrup, caught at her foot, and thrust their babies into her arms. She took one little one to her breast, and hushed it tenderly; it was burnt and dry with fever.

‘Be careful,’ said Mrs. Estes; ‘there is smallpox in the hills behind us, and these people have no notion of precautions.’

Kate, listening to the cry of the women, did not answer. A portly, white-bearded native, in a brown camel’s hair dressing-gown and patent leather boots, came out of the dispensary, thrusting the women right and left, and bowing profoundly.

‘You are new lady doctor?’ he said. ‘Hospital is quite ready for inspection. Stand back from the miss sahib!’ he shouted in the vernacular, as Kate slipped to the ground, and the crowd closed about her. Mrs. Estes remained in the saddle, watching the scene.

A woman of the desert, very tall, gold-coloured, and scarlet-lipped, threw back her face-cloth, caught Kate by the wrist, and made as if she would drag her away, crying aloud fiercely in the vernacular. The trouble in her eyes was not to be denied. Kate followed unresisting, and, as the crowd parted, saw a camel kneeling in the roadway. On its back a gaunt skeleton of a man was muttering, and picking aimlessly at the nail-studded saddle. The woman drew herself up to full height, and, without a word, flung herself down upon the ground, clasping Kate’s feet. Kate stooped to raise her, her underlip quivering, and the doctor from the steps shouted cheerfully—

‘Oh, that is all right. He is confirmed lunatic, her husband. She is always bringing him here.’

‘Have you done nothing, then?’ cried Kate, turning on him angrily.

‘What can do? She will not leave him here for treatment so I may blister him.’

‘Blister him!’ murmured Kate to herself, appalled, as she caught the woman’s hands and held them firmly. ‘Tell her that I say he must be left here,’ she said aloud. The doctor conveyed the command. The woman took a deep breath, and stared at Kate under level brows for a full half-minute. Then she carried Kate’s hand to the man’s forehead, and sat down in the dust, veiling her head.

Kate, dumb under these strange expressions of the workings of the Eastern mind, stared at her for a moment, with an impulse of the compassion which knows no race, before she bent and kissed her quietly on the forehead.

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‘Carry this man up,’ she said, pointing; and he was carried up the steps and into the hospital, his wife following like a dog. Once she turned and spoke to her sisters below, and there went up a little chorus of weeping and laughter.

‘She says,’ said the doctor, beaming, ‘that she will kill any one who is impolite to you. Also, she will be the nurse of your son.’

Kate paused to say a word to Mrs. Estes, who was bound on an errand further into the city; then she mounted the steps with the doctor.

‘Now, will you see the hospital?’ he asked. ‘But first let me introduce. I am Lalla Dhunpat Rai, Licentiate Medicine, from the Duff College. I was first native my province that took that degree. That was twenty years ago.’

Kate looked at him wonderingly. ‘Where have you been since?’ she asked.

‘Some time I stayed in my father’s house. Then I was clerk in medical stores in British India. But his Highness have graciously given me this appointment, which I hold now.’

Kate lifted her eyebrows. This, then, was to be her colleague. They passed into the hospital together in silence, Kate holding the skirt of her riding-habit clear of the accumulated grime of the floor.

Six roughly made pallets, laced with hide and string, stood in the filthy central courtyard of the house, and on each cot a man, swathed in a white sheet, tossed and moaned and jabbered. A woman entered with a pot full of rancid native sweetmeats, and tried vainly to make one of the men eat of her delicacies. In the full glare of the sunlight stood a young man almost absolutely unclothed, his hands clasped behind his head, trying to outstare the sun. He began a chant, broke off, and hurried from bed to bed, shouting to each words that Kate could not understand. Then he returned to his place in the centre, and took up his interrupted song.

‘He is confirmed lunatic, also,’ said the doctor. ‘I have blistered and cupped him very severely, but he will not go away. He is quite harmless, except when he does not get his opium.’

‘Surely you don’t allow the patients opium!’ exclaimed Kate.

Of course I allow opium. Otherwise they would die. All Rajputs eat opium.’

‘And you?’ asked Kate, with horror.

‘Once I did not—when I first came. But now——’ He drew a smooth-worn tin tobacco box from his waist, and took from it what appeared to Kate a handful of opium pills.

Despair was going over her in successive waves. ‘Show me the women’s ward,’ she said wearily. ‘Oh, they are all upstairs and downstairs and roundabout,’ returned the doctor casually.

‘And the maternity cases?’ she asked.

‘They are in casual ward.’

‘Who attends to them?’

‘They do not like me; but there is very clever woman from the outside—she comes in.’

‘Has she any training—any education?’

‘She is much esteemed in her own village,’ said the doctor. ‘She is here now, if you wish to see.’

‘Where?’ demanded Kate.

Dhunpat Rai, somewhat uneasy in his mind, made haste to lead the way up a narrow staircase to a closed door, from behind which came the wail of a new life.

Kate flung the door open wrathfully. In that particular ward of the State Hospital were the clay and cow-dung images of two gods, which the woman in charge was besprinkling with marigold buds. Every window, every orifice that might admit a breath of air, was closed, and the birth-fire blazed fiercely in one corner, its fumes nearly asphyxiating Kate as she entered.

What happened between Kate and the much esteemed woman will never be known. The girl did not emerge for half an hour. But the woman came out much sooner, dishevelled, and cackling feebly.

After this Kate was prepared for anything, even for the neglected condition of the drugs in the dispensary—the mortar was never cleaned, and every prescription carried to the patient many more drugs than were written for him—and for the foul, undrained, uncleaned, unlighted, and unventilated rooms which she entered one after another hopelessly. The patients were allowed to receive their friends as they would, and to take from their hands whatever misguided kindness offered. When death came, the mourners howled in chorus about the cot, and bore the naked body through the courtyard, amid the jeers of the lunatic, to carry to the city what infection Heaven willed..

There was no isolation of infectious cases during the progress of the disease, and children scourged with ophthalmia played light-heartedly with the children of the visitors or among diphtheria beds. At one point, and one point only, the doctor was strong; he was highly successful in dealing with the very common trouble entered on the day-book as ‘loin bite.’ The woodcutters and small traders who had occasion to travel through the lonely roads of the State were not infrequently struck down by tigers, and in these cases the doctor, discarding the entire English pharmacopoeia, fell back on simples of proved repute in the neighbouring villages, and wrought wonders. None the less, it was necessary to convey to him that in future there would be only one head of the State Hospital, that her orders must be obeyed without question, and that her name was Miss Kate Sheriff.

The doctor, reflecting that she attended on the women of the court, offered no protest. He had been through many such periods of reform and reorganisation, and knew that his own inertia and a smooth tongue would carry him through many more. He bowed and assented, allowing Kate’s reproaches to pass over his head, and parrying all questions with the statement—

‘This hospital only allowed one hundred and fifty rupees per mensem from State revenues. How can get drugs all the way from Calcutta for that?’

‘I am paying for this order,’ said Kate, writing out a list of needed drugs and appliances on the desk in the bath-room, which was supposed to serve as an office; ‘and I shall pay for whatever else I think necessary.’

‘Order going through me offeecially?’ suggested Dhunpat Rai, with his head on one side.

Unwilling to raise unnecessary obstacles, Kate assented. With those poor creatures lying in the rooms about her unwatched, untended, at the mercy of this creature, it was not a time to argue about commissions.

‘Yes,’ she said decidedly; ‘of course.’ And the doctor, when he saw the size and scope of the order, felt that he could endure much at her hands.

At the end of the three hours Kate came away, fainting with weariness, want of food, and bitter heartache.