THE evening and the long night gave Kate ample time for self-examination after she had locked up the treacherous fruit, and consoled the Maharaj, through her tears, for the mysterious death of Moti. One thing only seemed absolutely clear to her, when she rose red-eyed and unrefreshed the next morning: her work was with the women so long as life remained, and the sole refuge for her present trouble was in the portion of that work which lay nearest to her hand. Meanwhile the man who loved her remained in Gokral Seetarun, in deadly peril of his life, that he might be within call of her; and she could not call him, for to summon him was to yield, and she dared not.
She took her way to the hospital. The dread for him that had assailed her yesterday had become a horror that would not let her think.
The woman of the desert was waiting as usual at the foot of the steps, her hands clasped over her knee, and her face veiled. Behind her was Dhunpat Rai, who should have been among the wards; and she could see that the courtyard was filled with people—strangers and visitors, who, by, her new regulations, were allowed to come only once a week. This was not their visiting day, and Kate, strained and worn by all that she had passed through since the day before, felt an angry impulse in her heart go out against them, and spoke wrathfully.
‘What is the meaning of this, Dhunpat Rai?’ she demanded, alighting.
‘There is commotion of popular bigotry within,’ said Dhunpat Rai. ‘It is nothing. I have seen it before. Only do not go in.’
She put him aside without a word, and was about to enter when she met one of her patients, a man in the last stage of typhoid fever, being borne out by half a dozen clamouring friends, who shouted at her menacingly. The woman of the desert was at her side in an instant, raising her hand, in the brown hollow of which lay a long, broad-bladed knife.
‘Be still, dogs!’ she shouted, in their own tongue. ‘Dare not to lay hands on this peri, who has done all for you!’
‘She is killing our people,’ shouted a villager.
‘Maybe,’ said the woman, with a flashing smile; ‘but I know who will be lying here dead if you do not suffer her to pass. Are you Rajputs, or Bhils from the hills, hunters of fish, and diggers after grubs, that you run like cattle because a lying priest from nowhere troubles your heads of mud? Is she killing your people? How long can you keep that man alive with your charms and your mantras?’ she demanded, pointing to the stricken form on the stretcher. ‘Out—go out! Is this hospital your own village to defile? Have you paid one penny for the roof above you or the drugs in your bellies? Get hence before I spit upon you!’ She brushed them aside with a regal gesture.
‘ It is best not to go in,’ said Dhunpat Rai in Kate’s, ear. ‘There is local holy man in the courtyard, and he is agitating their minds. Also, I myself feel much indisposed.’
‘But what does all this mean?’ demanded Kate again.
For the hospital was in the hands of a hurrying crowd, who were strapping up bedding and cooking-pots, lamps and linen, calling to one another up and down the staircases in subdued voices, and bringing the sick from the upper wards as ants bring eggs out of a broken hill, six or eight to each man—some holding bunches of marigold flowers in their hands, and pausing to mutter prayers at each step, others peering fearfully into the dispensary, and yet others drawing water from the well and pouring it out around the beds.
In the centre of the courtyard, as naked as the lunatic who had once lived there, sat an ash-smeared, long-haired, eagle-taloned, half-mad, wandering native priest, and waved above his head his buckhorn staff, sharp as a lance at one end, while he chanted in a loud monotonous voice some song that drove the men and women to work more quickly.
As Kate faced him, white with wrath, her eyes blazing, the song turned to a yelp of fierce hatred.
She dashed among the women swiftly—her own women, who she thought had grown to love her. But their relatives were about them, and Kate was thrust back by a bare-shouldered, loud-voiced dweller of the out-villages in the heart of the desert.
The man had no intention of doing her harm, but the woman of the desert slashed him across the face with her knife, and he withdrew howling.
‘Let me speak to them,’ said Kate, and the woman beside her quelled the clamour of the crowd with uplifted hands. Only the priest continued his song. Kate strode toward him, her little figure erect and quivering, crying in the vernacular, ‘Be silent, thou, or I will find means to close thy mouth!’
The man was hushed, and Kate, returning to her women, stood amongst them, and began to speak impassionedly.
‘Oh, my women, what have I done?’ she cried, still in the vernacular. ‘If there is any fault here, who should right it but your friend? Surely you can speak to me day or night.’ She threw out her arms. ‘Listen, my sisters! Have you gone mad, that you wish to go abroad now, half-cured, sick, or dying? You are free to go at any hour. Only, for your own sake, and for the sake of your children, do not go before I have cured you, if God so please. It is summer in the desert now, and many of you have come from many koss distant.’
‘She speaks truth! She speaks truth,’ said a voice in the crowd.
‘Ay, I do speak truth. And I have dealt fairly by ye. Surely it is upon your heads to tell me the cause of this flight, and not to run away like mice. My sisters, ye are weak and ill, and your friends do not know what is best for you. But I know.’
‘Arre! But what can we do?’ cried a feeble voice. ‘It is no fault of ours. I, at least, would fain die in peace, but the priest says——’
Then the clamour broke out afresh. ‘There are charms written upon the plasters——’
‘Why should we become Christians against our will? The wise woman that was sent away asks it.’
‘What are the meanings of the red marks on the plasters?’
‘Why should we have strange devil-marks stamped upon our bodies? And they burn, too, like the fires of hell.’
‘The priest came yesterday—that holy man yonder—and he said it had been revealed to him, sitting among the hills, that this devil’s plan was on foot to make us lose our religion——’
‘And to send us out of the hospital with marks upon our bodies—ay, and all the babies we should bear in the hospital should have tails like camels, and ears like mules. The wise woman says so; the priest says so.’
‘Hush! hush!’ cried Kate, in the face of these various words. ‘What plasters? What child’s talk is this of plasters and devils? Not one child, but many have been born here, and all were comely. Ye know it! This is the word of the worthless woman, whom I sent away because she was torturing you.’
‘Nay, but the priest said——’
‘What care I for the priest? Has he nursed you? Has he watched by you of nights? Has he sat by your bedside, and smoothed your pillow, and held your hand in pain? Has he taken your children from you and put them to sleep, when ye needed an hour’s rest?’
‘He is a holy man. He has worked miracles. We dare not face the anger of the gods.’
One woman, bolder than the rest, shouted, ‘Look at this’; and held before Kate’s face one of the prepared mustard-leaves lately ordered from Calcutta, which bore upon the back, in red ink, the maker’s name and trade-mark.
‘What is this devil’s thing?’ demanded the woman fiercely.
The woman of the desert caught her by the shoulder, and forced her to her knees.
‘Be still, woman without a nose!‘she cried, her voice vibrating with passion. ‘She is not of thy clay, and thy touch would defile her. Remember thine own dunghill, and speak softly.’
Kate picked up the plaster, smiling.
‘And who says there is devil’s work in this?’ she demanded.
‘The holy man, the priest. Surely he should know!’
‘Nay, ye should know,’ said Kate patiently. She understood now, and could pity. ‘Ye have worn it. Did it work thee any harm, Pithira?’ She pointed directly toward her. ‘Thou hast thanked me not once but many times for giving thee relief through this charm. If it was the devil’s work, why did it not consume thee?’
‘Indeed it burnt very much indeed,’ responded the woman, with a nervous laugh.
Kate could not help laughing. ‘That is true. I cannot make my drugs pleasant. But ye know that they do good. What do these people, your friends—villagers, camel-drivers, goat-herds—know of English drugs? Are they so wise among their hills, or is the priest so wise, that they can judge for thee here, fifty miles away from them? Do not listen. Oh, do not listen! Tell them that ye will stay with me, and I will make you well. I can do no more. It was for that I came. I heard of your misery ten thousand miles away, and it burnt into my heart. Would I have come so far to work you harm? Go back to your beds, my sisters, and bid these foolish people depart.’
There was a murmur among the women, as if of assent and doubt. For a moment the decision swayed one way and the other.
Then the man whose face had been slashed shouted, ‘What is the use of talking? Let us take our wives and sisters away! We do not wish to have sons like devils. Give us your voice, O father!’ he cried to the priest.
The holy man drew himself up, and swept away Kate’s appeal with a torrent of abuse, imprecation, and threats of damnation; and the crowd began to slip past Kate by twos and threes, half carrying and half forcing their kinsfolk with them.
Kate called on the women by name, beseeching them to stay—reasoning, arguing, expostulating. But to no purpose. Many of them were in tears; but the answer from all was the same. They were sorry, but they were only poor women, and they feared the wrath of their husbands.
Minute after minute the wards were depopulated of their occupants, as the priest resumed his song, and began to dance frenziedly in the courtyard. The stream of colours broke out down the steps into the street, and Kate saw the last of her carefully swathed women borne out into the pitiless sun-glare—only the woman of the desert remaining by her side.
Kate looked on with stony eyes. Her hospital was empty.