The Death of Dil

- an excerpt from HMS Surprise by Patrick O'Brian. This passage is a masterclass in restraint.

The alley was unusually crowded; already there were people filling in from side to side, and it was only by urging a Brahmin bull in front of him that he was able to reach the triangular booth made of planks and wedged against a buttress. The old woman was sitting in front of it, with a wavering lamp on her right side, a white-robed man on the other, Dil’s body in front of her, partly covered with a piece of cloth. On the ground, a bowl with some marigolds in it and four brass coins. The people pressed in a half circle facing her, listening gravely to her harsh, angry voice.

He sat down in the second rank - went down with a grunt, as though his legs had been cut from under him - and he felt an intolerable pain rising in his heart. He had seen so much death that he could not be mistaken: but after some time the hard acceptance of what he had learnt cleared his mind at least. The old woman was calling upon the crowd for money: breaking off to tell the Brahmin that a very little wood would do – wrangling with him, insisting. The people were kind: many words of comfort, sympathy and praise, small offerings added to the bowl; but it was a desperately poor neighbourhood and the coins did not amount to half a dozen logs.

‘Here is no one of her caste’, said a man next to Stephen; and the other people murmured that that was the cruel pity of the thing – her own people would have seen to the fire. But with a famine coming, no man dared look beyond the caste he belonged to. ‘I am of her caste,’ said Stephen to the man in front of him, touching his shoulder. ‘Tell the woman I will buy the child. Friend, tell the woman I will buy the child and take it down. I will attend to the fire.’

The man looked round at him. Stephen’s eyes were remote; his cheeks hollow, lined and dirty; his hair straggled over his face: he might have been mad, or in another state - removed. The man glanced at his grave neighbours, felt their qualified approval, and called out, ‘Grandmother, here is a holy man of thy caste who from piety will buy the child and take it down: he will also provide the wood.’

More conversation – cries – and a dead silence. Dil’s face was infinitely calm: the wavering flame made it seem to smile mysteriously at times, but the steady light showed a face as far from emotion as the sea: contained and utterly detached. Her arms showed the marks where the bracelets had been torn off, but the marks were slight: there had been no struggle, not desperate resistance.

He picked her up, and followed by the old woman, a few friends and the Brahmin, he carried her to the strand, her head lolling against his shoulder. The dawn broke as they went down to the Bazaar: there were parties already there before them, at the edge of the calm sea before the wood-sellers.

Prayers, lustration; chanting, lustration; he laid her on the pyre. Pale flames in the sunlight, the fierce rush of blazing sandalwood, and the column of smoke rising, rising, inclining gently away as the breeze from the sea set in.

‘…nunc et in hora mortis nostrae,’ he repeated yet again, and felt the lap of water on his foot. He looked up. The people had gone; the pyre was no more than a dark patch with the sea hissing at its embers; and he was alone. The tide was rising fast.