Over the Edge of the World

Over the Edge of the World  (1894) 
by Flora Annie Steel

Extracted from English Illustrated magazine (London), V 11, 1893-94, pp. 367–374. Accompanying illustrations by R. Caton Woodville may be omitted.


OVER THE EDGE OF THE WORLD

By FLORA ANNIE STEEL

SOME of you must remember Graham.”

“Stout man with a pretty daughter?”

“Possibly. But when I last saw him he was slim, and the daughter a bald baby. That was just after he died of cholera.”

We in the smoking room sat up with glances wavering between the speaker's face and the whisky bottle, but there was nothing unusual in the appearance of either one or the other. There was a pause.

“I dare say it seems strange to talk of meeting a man after his death,” began the speaker again. Some one murmured a polite hope that it had not been an unpleasantly warm expedition, whereat the gray man with the brown face got up quietly and lit another cigar.

“It was a bad year,” he went on, between the puff's. “They were dying like sheep in the Salpur district.”

Windows set wide open to the summer air, let in the noisy vitality of London streets, yet memory grasped many of us with her resistless hand, leading us back to silent, solitary days when the punkah throbbed intermittently in darkened rooms, and we sat wondering—more with a vague curiosity than fear—what havoc the cholera fiend was wreaking outside in the blaze of yellow sunlight. Now, when a man has once so waited and wondered, the interest abides in him always, so that the very name of cholera awakens a desire to hear and know more. We sat up and listened, but nothing came.

“A case of suspended animation, I suppose,” remarked a young doctor. “It is not uncommon. I remember one——

“So do I,” interrupted the gray man imperturbably, “but this was different; Graham really died. I am sure of it.”

Again we waited, expecting more, but the gray man was silent. Then we turned and looked to the Major. In cases of this kind he was our referee. He lifted his coat-tails and stood judicially in front of the fire.

“I think,” he said, “that when a man offers a statement of that sort for the acceptance of this smoking room, he is bound to explain it.”

“I can't,” replied the gray man; “but as we don't dine for half an hour, I will tell you the story, such as it is. Perhaps some of you may understand it, I don't.

I never shall till we see things face to face.”

The tone of his voice gave me personally quite an unpleasant shiver down my back, and I felt impelled towards a sherry and bitters, though I had read all the month's magazines, and in consequence was well posted up in the latest ghost developments.

“When I first knew Graham,” began the gray man, “he was a griff at Allahabad, as good-looking, cheeky, high-spirited a young competition wallah as ever passed an examination only fit for bookworms. How the Government of India can expect——

“Point, sir, point,” murmured the Major.

“I beg your pardon; well, how he managed to have kept up such an absorbing interest in the formation of his white ties, or such a keen appetite for all things digestible or indigestible in the whole solar system was even then a mystery to me. For, although I was but a few years older, I already wore spectacles and felt myself circumscribed by the Penal Code. Graham, on the other hand, was absolutely untrammelled, except, perhaps, by good nature, and he was coming near the inevitable smash when typhoid fever stepped in between him and the dog's. To be brief, he fell out of the hands of a bad woman into the hands of a good one, who nursed him as she had nursed many another homeless boy through the valley of the shadow.

I am not going to say anything about this particular woman, because many of us have met her like when we were sick and sorry, and can supply her portrait from memory. Let us call her the mem sahib. Some of us, at any rate, have known her under that name. After he recovered he used to spend his leave with them, and more than once she came to look after him when he was ill; for there never was a more reckless chap as far as he himself was concerned. He was for ever coming to grief at polo, or half killing himself with malaria. One sees a lot of sham sentiment of the motherly sort in India, but now and again one comes across a real case of adoption. This was Graham's luck, and as the years went by the tie of confidence between him and the mem sahib grew closer than that of most mothers and sons. I was stationed with him several times in outlying districts, and have often watched his face brighten when a letter from her came to cheer the long monotonous days. Then he married;—a charming wife to whom he was absolutely devoted, and we drifted apart, as men do after marriage even when it brings the most charming and tolerant of wives. Shortly after the mem sahib's husband left India for good, and she, if I may say so, left it for bad. At any rate she left many people in a sorry plight, for she was one of those women who have the knack of helping others.

I remember attempting to express my own sense of forlornness to her one day when Graham was by. She gave a half-jesting reply that old-fashioned Gamps were no longer necessary, since a sick man could go to the station hospital and get nursed by the most scientific of sisters. Whereupon Graham, in the same half-jesting way, declared he would never part with his Gamp, and that she was welcome to every “piller” he possessed if she would only continue to come and nurse him. “Over the edge of the world?” she asked, still with a half smile. Adding, in a lower tone, “I would if I could, you know that well.”

“Then I'll chance it,” he replied. The look between them was good to see. After that the conversation drifted away into the borderland of the unknown—it had a trick of doing that when the mem sahib was among friends; and I remember her saying that life limited us more than death might do. She was full of fanciful theories and dreams. That was the last time I saw her; she died before I went home on furlough. I think the wrench was too hard for her soft heart.

To return to my story. Graham's wife had a baby, so it happened that we chummed together again during one hot weather when our respective wives were in the hills. Cholera raged in the district, and as it was Graham's first independent charge, he felt the responsibility a good deal. Nothing would serve him but to inspect the worst villages, and as my work lay that way, I went with him into camp, in the vain hope of making him take reasonable care of himself. But when the idea of duty seized him there never was any sparing of himself, and I was scarcely surprised on returning to my resthouse one evening, to find him down with the disease in its worst form. Of course I sent to headquarters for medical assistance at once; but we were twenty miles off, and the chance of its coming in time was very small.

Graham's bearer was in too great a funk to be useful, but a new khansâman, who had been put on when Graham's wife went to the hills taking the regular cook with her, did very well. It's a digression, but I've always thought that filching away of the best servants by our wives is simply brutal; perhaps they think it is the only way of impressing the horrors of absence on our minds. Well, Elahi Baksh showed such a knowledge of what ought to be done that I complemented him on his unusual skill. The man's impassive face never relaxed.

“I am of a family of hakims, sahib," he replied gravely. “My grandfather could have saved my master; now he is in the hands of God, who kept me from the wisdom of my fathers.”

I looked at him inquiringly.

“The old man died,” he replied; “my father was away and I was a child. How could I learn the elixir—but I have seen and tasted it.”

He said no more, but obeyed my orders with a sort of mechanical, hopeless alacrity. The first hours passed quickly in restless busyness. I remember the room in which Graham lay jutted out into the little oasis of green garden, and as it had windows all round I could see, through the chicks, right away on all sides to the dusty, level, whitey-brown plain, which looked so much lighter and more distant than the sky; that was purple-black with heavy rain clouds, save in the west where the horizon showed a sudden dull red. Graham recognised his danger calmly, as I knew he would, and gave me clear instructions how, if need be, the worst was to be broken to his wife. He laid great stress on her unfitness for travel, and even if he rallied she was not to be allowed to come and nurse him, or run any risk of any kind; adding, with one of his kindly looks, that he needed no better nursing than he had. Yet, though he never mentioned her name, I felt certain from his expression he was thinking of the mem sahib far away on the other side of the world. He made a good fight for life, waking up, as it were, every now and again from the dream of pain and death, to something of his imperious ways. Then he would wander again, and so drift into unconsciousness. It was in one of these throbs of life that a smile came suddenly to his face.

“I forgot,” he murmured; “give me the forms, dear old boy.”

“What forms?” I asked.

He signed feebly to the writing-case on a table hard by. In opening it my hands fell on a bundle of telegraph forms such as every Indian official carries about with him. His eager, wistful eyes gave assent, and I brought the papers to him.

“Pencil,” he whispered, “quick, or it will be too late!”

Ere I could return with the latter, the cruel pain had seized him once more; but his mind was set and fixed. His cramped blue fingers forced themselves to write. The effort was pitiable to see, and I was glad when the resolve in his face melted away into the blank of unconsciousness. A glance at the paper as I hurriedly put it aside showed me that the effort had been in vain. Beyond one illegible scrawl nothing was to be seen. After that he never rallied, and before the doctor came, his holsters crammed with remedies, poor Graham was gone. It is curious how trifles strike one more strongly than the important factors in these tragedies of life. I remember thinking the scatter-brained Irish doctor was more sorry at losing the chance of trying some new nostrum than at the actual death of my poor friend. He waxed eloquent in regret at the delay; asserting that one little half hour might have saved a life; producing as proof a small bottle containing some infallible remedy which, he said, he had lately received from a native hakim. As the man was an inveterate gobemouche, for ever thinking geese were swans, I paid little attention to him, and left him to Elahi Baksh while I went to make necessary arrangements. If Graham's last wishes were to be obeyed I had to make sure that the bad news, travelling proverbially fast, should not reach his wife through some side channel. The only way to prevent this was to wire precautions to her immediate neighbours. I therefore wrote out a few telegrams, and after bidding a sowar prepare his horse to ride with them across country to the nearest railway station, I told the bearer to hand over the papers and needful rupees as soon as the man was ready to start. I am particular in these details, for on this point much of the mystery of my story depends. What I want you to understand is that I left the telegrams on the table whilst I busied myself in other things. There was much to be done. I had to ride twenty miles to headquarters that night, and be back by dawn if poor Graham was to find decent Christian burial.

The doctor, too, was anxious to be off, knowing that he might be required else where at any moment. Just as we were starting a thought struck me, and I went once more into the room where the dead man lay. The chicks had been tied up, and the four faintly glimmering squares of the windows only served to show the dark beyond. Night had fallen, and the heavy clouds seemed to smother all breath of life in the world. The only thing really visible was the hard, rigid square of the sheeted bed. A curious feeling that I was deserting a comrade came over me as I turned to seek for the telegraph form on which poor Graham had scrawled his last wish. It might, I thought, have a melancholy interest for his wife, and I wished to secure it from chance of loss. To my surprise it was nowhere to be seen, and after diligent search I was forced to accept Elahi Baksh's explanation, that in all probability it had gone with the other forms for despatch.

“The bearer is a fool,” he said, “fear hath made his brain dissolve. Nevertheless the sahib need not be alarmed, I will watch, and no harm shall come to my master in your honour's absence.”

Somehow I felt inclined to trust the man, and it was a relief as I rode away to see his still, impassible figure crouched beside the oil chiragh in the verandah. The night was dark as death itself, and I remember wondering how the feeble flicker of the oil lamp which scarcely showed the darkness around it could shine so far into the night. I must have been a good half mile away when I turned to look for it the last time, and there it was like a star. The rain came down in torrents; altogether a night to be remembered, with its ghastly rousing of carpenters and grave-diggers, and dreary, dreary preparations. Through it all the flicker of that oil lamp seemed to light up one corner in my tired brain—that which held the memory of the dead man lying all alone.

It cleared towards dawn, and half an hour after I had, in the darkness, charged and temporarily scattered a dismal little procession carrying the roughly made coffin on a string bed, I drew bridle in front of the resthouse once more, and dismissed the wearied beast to find its own stable. The glimmering dawn whitened the bare outlines of the bungalow, and showed me Elahi Baksh still crouched beside the oil lamp.

I thought he was asleep, but at the first touch on his shoulder he stood up alert.

“Hâzar! mem sahib!” Then with a swift glance salaamed low, adding in apologetic tones:—“I did not know it was your honour. I thought it was the mem sahib once more.”

A strangely dazed look in his eyes made me think he had been eating opium, and I reproached him angrily with having neglected his promise.

“Before heaven, my great lord!” he answered gently, “I have not slept all night, I have watched. If your honour doubts his slave's word let him ask the mem sahib.”

Involuntarily I asked, “What mem sahib?”

The dazed look came stronger. “How should a poor man know? I mean the mem who came after your honour left.”

“Came! after I left! Why!—where is she now?”

“With the sahib,” he replied; “or stay! she is coming out.”

He pointed to the door, and as I live something—the wind of dawn perhaps—swayed the chick, turning it to one side as if an invisible presence were passing through it. For a moment I hesitated; then reason rose in wrath against my fear, and I entered the room. All seemed the same as when I had left it, and the low bed with its white covering still gleamed the only distinct object amid the pale shadows of dawn. Suddenly I felt a rush of blood to my heart, and heard a cry. I must have uttered it, but I was unconscious of every sense and function save sight, as I strained my eyes with an awful eagerness to the outline of the sheet. Surely—surely—something moved! Rising and falling—rising and falling. A great horror seized me, and I could have fled from the fear of life as I had never fled from the dread of death. Slowly I forced myself to approach the bed, and turn back the sheet from the still face. My friend was dead I told myself; what could disturb his rest? It was a trick of fancy? a wavering shadow? Yet my hand shook, my feet failed me. A moment after, the knowledge that what I feared was true removed my terror. I found myself looking down on Graham's sleeping face with perfect calm; for it needed but a glance to show me that this was sleep, not death. Life, with all its possibilities, lay in the even, regular breathing, the quiet, painless face.

Then came the thought urgently persistent. Whose hand had guided him back? Whose care had come to his aid when friends forsook him? In my heart I knew, but I set the knowledge aside impatiently. Elahi Baksh still stood outside with folded arms. Him I would confront and question; there could be no mystery—nothing beyond explanation. So I went to him, and asked him when this thing happened.

“What thing, my lord?” he answered.

“Don't look like a boiled owl,” I cried; “you know quite well the sahib is alive —the danger is past—he will recover.”

“God be praised!” was the reply. “Shall I make tea for the mem, she must be tired.”

“There is no mem sahib!” I cried angrily; “you have been asleep and dreaming.”

“Before heaven I have not slept! How could I? The mem came so often crying, 'Elahi Baksh! Elahi Baksh!'”

Then I spoke quietly to him, for I saw he believed what he was saying, and told him he was mistaken; but he shook his head.

“She came just after you left, sahib," he insisted. “I was sitting by the light, and when I looked up she stood there where you stand, and her voice was so kind and soft as she said, 'Elahi Baksh, your master is not dead: his soul is dreaming by the gate of life. I have come to let him in, for the gate of death is ajar for me. Bring fire to warm the empty house.' So I brought fire. Sometimes when I looked up she was there, and sometimes she was not there. She came and went calling, 'Elahi Baksh! Elahi Baksh!' And everything she bid me do, or bring, I did. She must have come a long way to nurse the sahib, she looked so pale and tired. God grant her and her children long lives.”

“And when did you see her last?” I asked.

He put his hand to his head in confused thought.

“The night was so long, sahib, and she came so often calling 'Elahi Baksh! Elahi Baksh!' At the false dawn, sahib, she touched me on the shoulder. I must have been drowsy. She was so white, and her hand cold as ice. The jackals were slinking away. I saw two by the pillar yonder. 'The door is open,' she said, 'bring food to welcome the master home.' So I brought it.”

“And when you went into the room, was the sahib alive?” Again he passed his hand over his forehead and hesitated.

“I was not in the room, my lord. There was no light—nothing but the mem sahib standing where you stand, and calling to me 'Elahi Baksh! Elahi Baksh.' Her voice was so soft, like the voice of some one far off—very far off.”

I walked up and down the verandah several times before I asked him if he had ever seen this mem sahib or any one like her.

He shook his head. “I have seen few mem sahibs. I do not know the face of my mistress, doubtless it was she.”

Well, Graham recovered, but returning health brought him no memory of anything between the time of his trying to write the telegram and his awakening next morning; nor did I think it wise to tell him Elahi Baksh's strange story. I hinted at it to the doctor, but he was in a furious rage at the loss of his bottle of elixir, which he had left behind in Graham's room by mistake, and which was not to be found next day. He declared that Elahi Baksh had tried its efficacy on his master, and finding it succeed had stolen the remainder, enough to have made him—the doctor—famous for life. “'Twas an old beast of a fakir gave it to me, what the divvle was in it I don't know; but Graham was as dead as a doornail, and now he's as fit as a fiddle. And the elixir's gone. What do ye say to that? except that I was a fool not to try it myself.” It seemed reasonable; more reasonable than Elahi Baksh's story, till time brought a curious confirmation of the latter.

Coming home three weeks after I found Graham at his writing table. He lifted a pained set face as I entered, and pushing the letter, over which he had been leaning, towards me said,

“There is bad news. The mem sahib is dead.” I glanced at the letter scarce seeing the words.

“It would not have been so hard,” he said, after a while, “if there had been any message, any thought, but there was none—none.”

“Perhaps there was a message;” I began.

“No; read it. There was no time. It was so sudden at the last.”

She had been found late one morning dead at her writing table, her head resting on her clasped hands, beneath which lay a telegraph form on which was traced an illegible scrawl. Whether, feeling ill in the night she had risen, intending to telegraph for her husband who was away at the time, or whether she had fallen asleep for ever as she sat writing late into the night, as was her wont, no one could say. Nor could any one decipher the secret of the telegram. It was an Indian form, but as others of the same sort were found in her desk even this clue was lost.

I put my hand on Graham's shoulder, feeling as it lay there the long-drawn breath of a strong man's grief. “Graham,” I said, “there was more than a thought—more than a message. She kept her promise and came to you when you sent for her.”

Then I told him Elahi Baksh's story. And he was comforted.

There was a pause. Then the young doctor spoke. “A clear case, as I said, of suspended animation. It is not in the least uncommon.”

“But how about the telegram,” asked the gray man; and the various replies lasted till the dinner-bell rang.

This work is in the public domain in the United States because it was published before January 1, 1927.


The author died in 1929, so this work is also in the public domain in countries and areas where the copyright term is the author's life plus 80 years or less. This work may also be in the public domain in countries and areas with longer native copyright terms that apply the rule of the shorter term to foreign works.