‘YOU are a doctor? ’ inquired the person in the pear-shaped hat.
The interrogation lacked the embroidery of usage. It was simple, direct, of the soil.
The traveler from those fabulous countries which lie a hundred nights’ lodging from the village answered: ‘ No, I am not a doctor.’
‘You have a book,’ answered the person in the pear-shaped hat.
There was finality in the remark; as if the possession of a book by a person from those wizard regions were indisputable proof of science.
‘What is the matter?’ said the traveler.
The person in the pear-shaped hat lifted a thin brown arm, covered from the elbow up in a loose sleeve of blue cotton cloth. He pointed to a space of rising ground across the road from the village. The place was dry and bare except for a score of low, shapeless mounds marked by rough stones from the hillside, set on end. A group of bluecoated villagers stood among the stones and gazed dully at the traveler.
The person in the pear-shaped hat said: ‘ We are burying a man over there. Yesterday his wife fled from his house and he became ashamed. He became ashamed, so that he ate opium. So much opium that his heart stopped beating. Is he dead? Is he not dead? We are not sure. But we think that he is dead. And it is our custom that if a man die he must be buried at once. So we are burying him. But we are not sure. You, who are a doctor — ’
The traveler said: ‘No, I am not a doctor.’
The person in the pear-shaped hat turned away. He rejoined his companions. Then two from among them stooped and lifted from the ground by each end a long narrow object, wrapped in white cloth. The bundle was tied at both extremities with string, but from one end protruded two brown feet.
The men laid the bundle carefully in a hole which had been prepared. A third man took up a spade and began to shovel in the earth.
The traveler shuddered. He thought: ‘Under that crush of earth, if he is still alive, he will never wake. He will escape in his sleep.’ He thought: ‘ Even if I could snatch him back, who am I to decide that he must return? He has escaped the torture of being ashamed; escaped hunger, disease, extortion. Let him lie.’
The creaking road carriage crawled over the shoulder of the hill. The wretched village, the group of mute, blue-coated villagers, the bare, forbidding place of burial, were blotted out of sight.