It was in Burma, a sodden morning of the rains. A sickly light, like
yellow tinfoil, was slanting over the high walls into the jail yard. We
were waiting outside the condemned cells, a row of sheds fronted with
double bars, like small animal cages. Each cell measured about ten feet
by ten and was quite bare within except for a plank bed and a pot of
drinking water. In some of them brown silent men were squatting at the
inner bars, with their blankets draped round them. These were the
condemned men, due to be hanged within the next week or two.
One prisoner had been brought out of his cell. He was a Hindu, a puny
wisp of a man, with a shaven head and vague liquid eyes. He had a thick,
sprouting moustache, absurdly too big for his body, rather like the
moustache of a comic man on the films. Six tall Indian warders were
guarding him and getting him ready for the gallows. Two of them stood by
with rifles and fixed bayonets, while the others handcuffed him, passed a
chain through his handcuffs and fixed it to their belts, and lashed his
arms tight to his sides. They crowded very close about him, with their
hands always on him in a careful, caressing grip, as though all the while
feeling him to make sure he was there. It was like men handling a fish
which is still alive and may jump back into the water. But he stood quite
unresisting, yielding his arms limply to the ropes, as though he hardly
noticed what was happening.
Eight o'clock struck and a bugle call, desolately thin in the wet air,
floated from the distant barracks. The superintendent of the jail, who
was standing apart from the rest of us, moodily prodding the gravel with
his stick, raised his head at the sound. He was an army doctor, with a
grey toothbrush moustache and a gruff voice. "For God's sake hurry up,
Francis," he said irritably. "The man ought to have been dead by this
time. Aren't you ready yet?"
Francis, the head jailer, a fat Dravidian...