‘I’ve read your tales of India,’ he said, as he sat in my study at Rottingdean, ‘so I thought you might like to hear my story.’
I’d answered a knock at my front door just as my study clock struck midday, and found the man standing on the doorstep. He had looked cold, and oddly distracted.
‘Can I help you?’ I’d asked.
‘My name is Jabez Carter,’ he’d told me. ‘I’ve come a long way to see you.’
It was mid-January, and a bitter wind was blowing dark clouds across a leaden sky. Out of sheer pity, I had invited my visitor to step inside. I had taken his long black coat, bowler hat and bright yellow cravat, and hung them on the hall-stand.
Now, sitting with my visitor beside a blazing log fire, I was intrigued. ‘Please continue,’ I told him.
‘As a newly qualified medical doctor,’ he began, ‘I decided to devote several years to working abroad. I was young and fit, and I wanted to help those less fortunate than myself. In 1885, I took my new bride to live in a small village in the wilds of Afghanistan. I settled down there and devoted my life to caring for the medical needs of the people of that land. I remained there for the next ten years.’
‘A heroic undertaking,’ I told him, ‘for you, and your young wife.’
‘Indeed,’ he replied, and somewhat sadly I thought. ‘Then the British army raided our part of that unfortunate country. There had been a rebellion among the more unruly inhabitants, and the British wanted to teach them a lesson. In that alien landscape, the army struggled to subdue these men, but ultimately failed. They turned instead to a much easier target: the local population. Our neighbours paid a very high price simply for being Afghan. But my family paid the highest price of all.’
I was horrified. ‘Whatever happened to them?’ I asked him.
‘The tribesmen took their revenge by killing every European they could find. That included my wife and our six-year-old son.’
‘I’m indeed deeply sorry to hear that,’ I told him.
Just for a moment Carter was distracted from his tale and looked around my study at the bookcases and the pictures that hung on the walls. The clock on my mantelpiece held a particular attraction for him. He seemed overwhelmed by emotion, so I waited patiently as he pulled himself together.
When he finally broke from his trance, I spread my hands, and invited him to continue his story.
‘I happened to be visiting Kabul at the time,’ he explained. ‘On my return, I discovered the remains of my home and my family.’ He swallowed hard. ‘I heartily wished that I’d perished along with them. One of our friends, a local man who supported my work, took pity on me. At great risk to his own life, he helped me bury my family, and then led me to safety in the mountains. You have no idea how cold it can be out there in the depths of winter. Each night, I longed for death to take me while I slept, but such mercy was always denied me. The wind howled and the frost numbed my hands and feet, but I stumbled on. I was so badly affected by cold and hunger that, even when I reached the warmer lands of India, I hardly had the strength to put one foot in front of the other. Two months after leaving my devastated home, I finally arrived at Bombay. I was more dead than alive, and I owned nothing more than the rags I was wearing. A shipping agent took pity on me, and nursed me back to health. Then, when I was strong enough, he helped me find a ship. I signed on as surgeon for the voyage back to London.’
I was deeply impressed. ‘That’s quite a story.’
Carter held up his hand to show that he hadn’t finished yet. I let him continue. ‘During my convalescence,’ he told me, ‘I had time to dwell on all that had happened during those dreadful months. It didn’t seem fair. In my bitterness, I blamed the British for the loss of my family. I decided that I would do whatever I could to humiliate the British government.’
I stood up in alarm. ‘Man!’ I exclaimed. ‘Whatever are you going to do?’
‘I decided to commit the first and only act of rebellion act of my entire life,’ he told me. ‘I would return to Britain, and confront the Prime Minister with what had happened in Afghanistan. I would force the government to accept responsibility for the loss of my family. For them, I would become Nemesis!’
In the stunned silence that followed, he took out his pocket-watch and studied it carefully. Then his expression grew even darker. ‘It’s time for me to leave,’ he said. ‘I have told you my story. Now, all I ask is that you write it up and publish it in your own inimitable style.’
‘I will write it,’ I promised him, ‘and then I will allow my readers to make their own judgement.’
‘That’s all I can ask,’ he replied. ‘I promise that, before the month is out, you will know the full story.’
He returned the watch to his pocket, and stood up.
I led him into the entrance hall, returned his hat, coat and cravat, and escorted him to the front door. Just for a moment, he stood still, looking around at my home and the things it contained. Something about it transfixed him. Perhaps he was dreaming of what might have been for him.
Then, once again, he turned his lonely eyes towards me. ‘Thank you for your time, Mr Kipling,’ he said.
He pulled up the collar of his coat against the cold wind, tightened the cravat around his neck, and then was gone. I never saw Jabez Carter again. It seemed that whatever revenge he was planning on the British government his plans had come to nothing.
The visit continued to trouble me throughout those dark mid-winter days. Then, on one morning at the end of January, I came across an intriguing article in the Times. It reported the loss of a ship during a storm off the east coast of Africa. She was a British ship, en route from Bombay to London. One of the few people who survived the sinking reported that the ship had gone down shortly before twelve noon GMT on the fifteenth day of January. The article gave a list of those who had perished. It included the ship’s surgeon, one Jabez Carter.
Banner Photograph: “Royal Horse Artillery fleeing from Afghan attack at the Battle of Maiwand” by Richard Caton Woodville (1856-1927). – BritishBattles.com. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons – http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Royal_Horse_Artillery_fleeing_from_Afghan_attack_at_the_Battle_of_Maiwand.jpg#/media/File:Royal_Horse_Artillery_fleeing_from_Afghan_attack_at_the_Battle_of_Maiwand.jpg