At the Pit’s Mouth
by Rudyard Kipling
Men say it was a stolen tide
The Lord that sent it He knows all,
But in mine ear will aye abide
The message that the bells let fall-
And awesome bells they were to me,
That in the dark rang, ‘Enderby.’
Once upon a time there was a Man and his Wife and a Tertium Quid.
All three were unwise, but the Wife was the unwisest. The Man should have looked after his Wife, who should have avoided the Tertium Quid, who, again, should have married a wife of his own, after clean and open flirtations, to which nobody can possibly object, round Jakko or Observatory Hill. When you see a young man with his pony in a white lather and his hat on the back of his head, flying downhill at fifteen miles an hour to meet a girl who will be properly surprised to meet him, you naturally approve of that young man, and wish him Staff appointments, and take an interest in his welfare, and, as the proper time comes, give them sugar-tongs or side-saddles according to your means and generosity.
The Tertium Quid flew downhill on horseback, but it was to meet the Man’s Wife; and when he flew uphill it was for the same end. The Man was in the Plains, earning money for his Wife to spend on dresses and four-hundred-rupee bracelets, and inexpensive luxuries of that kind. He worked very hard, and sent her a letter or a post-card daily. She also wrote to him daily, and said that she was longing for him to come up to Simla. The Tertium Quid used to lean over her shoulder and laugh as she wrote the notes. Then the two would ride to the Post-office together.
Now, Simla is a strange place and its customs are peculiar; nor is any man who has not spent at least ten seasons there qualified to pass judgment on circumstantial evidence, which is the most untrustworthy in the Courts. For these reasons, and for others which need not appear, I decline to state positively whether there was anything irretrievably wrong in the relations between the Man’s Wife and the Tertium Quid. If there was, and hereon you must form your own opinion, it was the Man’s Wife’s fault. She was kittenish in her manners, wearing generally an air of soft and fluffy innocence. But she was deadlily learned and evil-instructed; and, now and again, when the mask dropped, men saw this, shuddered and almost drew back. Men are occasionally particular, and the least particular men are always the most exacting.
Simla is eccentric in its fashion of treating friendships. Certain attachments which have set and crystallised through half-a-dozen seasons acquire almost the sanctity of the marriage bond, and are revered as such. Again, certain attachments equally old, and, to all appearance, equally venerable, never seem to win any recognised official status; while a chance-sprung acquaintance, not two months born, steps into the place which by right belongs to the senior. There is no law reducible to print which regulates these affairs.
Some people have a gift which secures them infinite toleration, and others have not. The Man’s Wife had not. If she looked over the garden wall, for instance, women taxed her with stealing their husbands. She complained pathetically that she was not allowed to choose her own friends. When she put up her big white muff to her lips, and gazed over it and under her eyebrows at you as she said this thing, you felt that she had been infamously misjudged, and that all the other women’s instincts were all wrong; which was absurd. She was not allowed to own the Tertium Quid in peace; and was so strangely constructed that she would not have enjoyed peace had she been so permitted. She preferred some semblance of intrigue to cloak even her most commonplace actions.
After two months of riding, first round Jakko, then Elysium, then Summer Hill, then Observatory Hill, then under Jutogh, and lastly up and down the Cart Road as far as the Tara Devi gap in the dusk, she said to the Tertium Quid, ‘Frank, people say we are too much together, and people are so horrid.’
The Tertium Quid pulled his moustache, and replied that horrid people were unworthy of the consideration of nice people.
‘But they have done more than talk they have written written to my hubby I’m sure of it,’ said the Man’s Wife, and she pulled a letter from her husband out of her saddle-pocket and gave it to the Tertium Quid.
It was an honest letter, written by an honest man, then stewing in the Plains on two hundred rupees a month (for he allowed his wife eight hundred and fifty), and in a silk banian and cotton trousers. It said that, perhaps, she had not thought of the unwisdom of allowing her name to be so generally coupled with the Tertium Quid’s; that she was too much of a child to understand the dangers of that sort of thing; that he, her husband, was the last man in the world to interfere jealously with her little amusements and interests, but that it would be better were she to drop the Tertium Quid quietly and for her husband’s sake. The letter was sweetened with many pretty little pet names, and it amused the Tertium Quid considerably. He and She laughed over it, so that you, fifty yards away, could see their shoulders shaking while the horses slouched along side by side.
Their conversation was not worth reporting. The upshot of it was that, next day, no one saw the Man’s Wife and the Tertium Quid together. They had both gone down to the Cemetery, which, as a rule, is only visited officially by the inhabitants of Simla.
A Simla funeral with the clergyman riding, the mourners riding, and the coffin creaking as it swings between the bearers, is one of the most depressing things on this earth, particularly when the procession passes under the wet, dank dip beneath the Rockcliffe Hotel, where the sun is shut out, and all the hill streams are wailing and weeping together as they go down the valleys.
Occasionally folk tend the graves, but we in India shift and are transferred so often that, at the end of the second year, the Dead have no friend only acquaintances who are far too busy amusing themselves up the hill to attend to old partners. The idea of using a Cemetery as a rendezvous is distinctly a feminine one. A man would have said simply, ‘Let people talk. We’ll go down the Mall.’ A woman is made differently, especially if she be such a woman as the Man’s Wife. She and the Tertium Quid enjoyed each other’s society among the graves of men and women whom they had known and danced with aforetime.
They used to take a big horse-blanket and sit on the grass a little to the left of the lower end, where there is a dip in the ground, and where the occupied graves stop short and the ready-made ones are not ready. Each well-regulated Indian Cemetery keeps half-a-dozen graves permanently open for contingencies and incidental wear and tear. In the Hills these are more usually baby’s size, because children who come up weakened and sick from the Plains often succumb to the effects of the Rains in the Hills or get pneumonia from their ayahs taking them through damp pine-woods after the sun has set. In Cantonments, of course, the man’s size is more in request; these arrangements varying with the climate and population.
One day when the Man’s Wife and the Tertium Quid had just arrived in the Cemetery, they saw some coolies breaking ground. They had marked out a full-size grave, and the Tertium Quid asked them whether any Sahib was sick. They said that they did not know; but it was an order that they should dig a Sahib’s grave.
‘Work away,’ said the Tertium Quid, ‘and let’s see how it’s done.’
The coolies worked away, and the Man’s Wife and the Tertium Quid watched and talked for a couple of hours while the grave was being deepened. Then a coolie, taking the earth in baskets as it was thrown up, jumped over the grave.
‘That’s queer,’ said the Tertium Quid. ‘Where’s my ulster?’
‘What’s queer?’ said the Man’s Wife.
‘I have got a chill down my back just as if a goose had walked over my grave.’
‘Why do you look at the thing, then?’ said the Man’s Wife. ‘Let us go.’
The Tertium Quid stood at the head of the grave, and stared without answering for a space. Then he said, dropping a pebble down, ‘It is nasty and cold: horribly cold. I don’t think I shall come to the Cemetery any more. I don’t think grave-digging is cheerful.’
The two talked and agreed that the Cemetery was depressing. They also arranged for a ride next day out from the Cemetery through the Mashobra Tunnel up to Fagoo and back, because all the world was going to a garden-party at Viceregal Lodge, and all the people of Mashobra would go too.
Coming up the Cemetery road, the Tertium Quid’s horse tried to bolt uphill, being tired with standing so long, and managed to strain a back sinew.
‘I shall have to take the mare to-morrow,’ said the Tertium Quid, ‘and she will stand nothing heavier than a snaffle.’
They made their arrangements to meet in the Cemetery, after allowing all the Mashobra people time to pass into Simla. That night it rained heavily, and, next day, when the Tertium Quid came to the trysting-place, he saw that the new grave had a foot of water in it, the ground being a tough and sour clay.
”Jove! That looks beastly,’ said the Tertium Quid. ‘Fancy being boarded up and dropped into that well!’
They then started off to Fagoo, the mare playing with the snaffle and picking her way as though she were shod with satin, and the sun shining divinely. The road below Mashobra to Fagoo is officially styled the Himalayan-Thibet road; but in spite of its name it is not much more than six feet wide in most places, and the drop into the valley below may be anything between one and two thousand feet.
‘Now we’re going to Thibet,’ said the Man’s Wife merrily, as the horses drew near to Fagoo. She was riding on the cliff-side.
‘Into Thibet,’ said the Tertium Quid, ‘ever so far from people who say horrid things, and hubbies who write stupid letters. With you to the end of the world!’
A coolie carrying a log of wood came round a corner, and the mare went wide to avoid him forefeet in and haunches out, as a sensible mare should go.
‘To the world’s end,’ said the Man’s Wife, and looked unspeakable things over her near shoulder at the Tertium Quid.
He was smiling, but, while she looked, the smile froze stiff as it were on his face, and changed to a nervous grin the sort of grin men wear when they are not quite easy in their saddles. The mare seemed to be sinking by the stern, and her nostrils cracked while she was trying to realise what was happening. The rain of the night before had rotted the drop-side of the Himalayan-Thibet Road, and it was giving way under her. ‘What are you doing?’ said the Man’s Wife. The Tertium Quid gave no answer. He grinned nervously and set his spurs into the mare, who rapped with her forefeet on the road, and the struggle began. The Man’s Wife screamed, ‘Oh, Frank, get off!’
But the Tertium Quid was glued to the saddle his face blue and white and he looked into the Man’s Wife’s eyes. Then the Man’s Wife clutched at the mare’s head and caught her by the nose instead of the bridle. The brute threw up her head and went down with a scream, the Tertium Quid upon her, and the nervous grin still set on his face.
The Man’s Wife heard the tinkle-tinkle of little stones and loose earth falling off the roadway, and the sliding roar of the man and horse going down. Then everything was quiet, and she called on Frank to leave his mare and walk up. But Frank did not answer. He was underneath the mare, nine hundred feet below, spoiling a patch of Indian corn.
As the revellers came back from Viceregal Lodge in the mists of the evening, they met a temporarily insane woman, on a temporarily mad horse, swinging round the corners, with her eyes and her mouth open, and her head like the head of a Medusa. She was stopped by a man at the risk of his life, and taken out of the saddle, a limp heap, and put on the bank to explain herself. This wasted twenty minutes, and then she was sent home in a lady’s ‘rickshaw, still with her mouth open and her hands picking at her riding-gloves.
She was in bed through the following three days, which were rainy; so she missed attending the funeral of the Tertium Quid, who was lowered into eighteen inches of water, instead of the twelve to which he had first objected.