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Death’s Devotion

By Frank Athelstane Swettenham

    “How, Death’s devotion?
    “‘Twas he who drank the potion—”

J’AI cinq cartes à carreaux.”



“C’est bon.”

“Quinte au roi?”


“Ça fait vingt. I have also quatorze de rois, which makes ninety-
four, et trois as, ninety-seven—je joue carreaux, ninety-eight.
That is yours and the rest are mine, making me one hundred and
nineteen. You are Rubiconed, but, fortunately for you, for the
smallest possible number two hundred and twenty and three
twenty-five, I win— five hundred and forty-five in the evening ;
the luck has been all on my side to-night. Shall we play again?”

“Well, I think as it is past two A.M., it is hardly worth while
to begin another game. We will smoke one more cigarette, and
you shall tell me of your interview with Death.”

“Willingly, but another small brandy and soda will help the
tale along.”


                        146 Death’s Devotion

The man who had so evilly entreated his friend over that last
game of     piquet was Raoul de Marenil, soldier, scientist, courtier
and wanderer over the face of the earth, seeking fortune and
adventure, and finding with them (for he had brains enough to
be successful at almost any game) a great many friends of all
nationalities. It was natural that he should have much in common
with Englishmen, for his mother was an Englishwoman, and he
spoke English and French equally well, and with his intimates
mixed up the two languages with a charming but bewildering
fluency, though it was evident to those who had more than a
casual acquaintance with him that he was at heart a true

After wandering in many lands his business or his inclination
had taken him to the furthest East, where for some time he
had been the guest of a friend of no importance, named Michael
Hardy. It was their nightly practice, when left alone for the
evening, to play piquet till one or two in the morning, and then,
before turning in, to smoke that “last cigarette,” which usually
meant at least an hour’s talk on diverse subjects of mutual interest.
This was one of many such evenings, and no circumstances could
have been conceived better calculated to frame a tale of love,
adventure, or weird experience. A waning Eastern moon,
brilliant beyond description, and shining with that blue tinge
which is its special peculiarity in the small hours of the morning
when the light is most intense, shone over a wide valley, enclosed
towards the East by lofty but distant mountains, while Westward
the view was limited by the close approach of a broken chain
of low hills with spurs projecting out into the valley.

On the summit of the highest of these spurs stood the house
where the two men were sitting. Round the foot of the hill
wound a river, and this was joined at a point rather to the right


                        By Frank Athelstane Swettenham 147

front of the house by another stream of equal size. On the banks
of these streams clustered the thickly built houses of a picturesque
Eastern town, the red roofs striking a note of warm colour in that
silvery sheen. On the outskirts of the town, scattered buildings
served to relieve the green monotony of luxuriant foliage, while
the eye caught here and there glints of water from river-reach or
artificial lakelet. In the middle distance stood bold hills, covered
with virgin forest and rocky limestone cliffs with vari-coloured
sides, so sheer that no foliage would cling to them. Beyond
these, haze—miles and miles of hazy distance, through which
great mountains seemed to loom, grey and indistinct, and over all
the blue heavens ; that extraordinary Eastern night-sky, so
wondrously blue, that when you see but a patch of it above the
fountained courtyard of an Eastern dwelling, you cannot at first
feel certain whether it is painted ceiling or the blue empyrean.
Unlike those Northern latitudes, where the clearness of the
atmosphere seems to invite the gazer to reach down the great
stars from heaven, here, in this haze-charged night, they twinkle
and glimmer from zenith to horizon, through many a veil of mist ;
and Venus, alone of all the constellations, dares to dispute the
supremacy of the Queen of Night.

The subdued light within the room, the white walls, the lofty
ceiling supported by heavy wooden beams resting on fluted, white
pillars, the dark polished floor with its thick Persian rugs and
skins of tiger and black leopard, the soft colours of the graceful
Oriental hangings, the rare prints on the walls, the few but admir-
ably chosen pieces of furniture, the beautiful carvings and em-
broideries, the best and newest books, all combined to make a
singularly attractive interior, full of harmoniously blended colours
in striking contrast to the all-pervading radiance of the silver


                        148 Death’s Devotion

Across the verandah with its tiers of lovely ferns and foliage
plants, through the hanging baskets of many coloured orchids was
wafted, on the scarce perceptible breeze, the intoxicating scent of
jasmine and chempâka, while the only sound to break the silence
was the occasional cry of the night-jar, that curious note which
resembles nothing so much as the hollow rattle of a stone thrown
across ice on a clear frosty night.

The friends pulled two comfortable chairs to one of the many
wide doors that opened on to the marble-paved verandah, and with
their backs to the attractions of the immediate surroundings and
their faces to the moon-bathed valley beneath, Marenil told his

“I was in Africa,” he said, “and had spent months exploring
a buried city, where besides meeting with several strange adven-
tures I contracted a horrible fever that, completely prostrated me,
and made it necessary to abandon my researches and seek the
nearest hospital. Unfortunately for me my buried city was far
beyond the confines of even comparative civilisation, and by the
time my people had carried me to a Government Hospital, where
I could get the help of a French surgeon and the nursing of a
Sister of Mercy, I was very bad indeed.

“I was too ill to take much notice of the hospital, but you
know what the place is like. A long, narrow, white-walled
building of one storey with a row of windows on either side, a
door at each end, and trestle beds at regular intervals down the
sides, the patients’ heads next the white-washed walls, their feet
towards the vacant space which serves as passage between the
beds. By each bed there was a small table and chair, and on the
wall, in a tin frame, hung the bed ticket which told the name and
date of arrival of the patient, the nature of his ailment and other
particulars and possibly the treatment prescribed. I cannot say I


                        By Frank Athelstane Swettenham 149

noticed these particulars when I was carried into the ward ; I
was too sick of the deadly journey in the hammock through the
scorching heat, too feverish and throat-parched, too weary and
pain-wracked, perhaps too light-headed to care about anything.
I realised that at last the journey was over, that at last that mad-
dening sway of the hammock was exchanged for blessed stillness
and cessation from movement, that I seemed to have gone out of
burning sunlight into cool shade, and that the tall figures, the
dark complexions of my white-robed Arab bearers were exchanged
for the sympathetic faces and deft fingers of the hospital surgeon
and his devoted attendants.

“I do not know how time went, how long I had lain there, nor
how things had fared with me. I think I must have been uncon-
scious for days, but one evening, about 7 P.M., I was vaguely
sensible that the Doctor and a Sister were standing by my bed
and in hushed voices discussing the probability of my being able
to live much beyond the morning. I know that it was borne in
on me that their fears were stronger than their hopes, and I was
too weak and exhausted to take much interest in my own

“I must have slept shortly after this, for it seemed to me that a
long time had elapsed, that midnight had come and passed, and
I awoke to see the door towards which I was looking, open
slowly and quietly to admit a strange figure. A tall, gaunt
skeleton, with unusually large bones, and some kind of weird
light in his eye-sockets that made me feel he could see, entered
without noise, gently closed the door, and walked rather slowly
towards my bed. I realised instantly that he was coming to me,
and I noticed that he carried under his left arm a large, leather-
bound book which seemed of great age and was closed by two
old-fashioned, heavy silver clasps. Over his right shoulder the

The Yellow Book—Vol. IX. I


                        150 Death’s Devotion

skeleton carried a heavy scythe which showed signs, both as to
blade and handle, of much hard usage. Walking round the foot
of my bed and stopping behind my little table, the skeleton fixed
his curious eye-light on my face and said slowly and rather
sadly : ‘Je suis la Mort.’

“I was not surprised to hear that Death was my visitor, and I
said : ‘Bon soir, la Mort, asseyez-vous, s’il vous plait.’

“He thanked me and sat down ; then taking the book on his
thigh-bone and placing it in a comfortable position by crossing
his legs, he unclasped it and looked over the pages till he came to
one where he stopped and opening the book wide he turned to me
and said : ‘This is your page, and herein is inscribed the record of
your good and evil deeds since ever you were born. The good are
on this side’ (pointing to the left page, where I could see there
were only two or three short lines of writing), ‘the evil are
here,’ said he, as he laid his hand on the right page of the book.
‘I will read the record to you,’ he said, as he turned the front
of his skull towards me, and I felt those two luminous eye-sockets
transfix me. ‘First,’ said Death, ‘I will read your good deeds.’

“The tale of my virtues was soon ended, and did not seem to
me to possess any particular value. ‘Now,’ and again those
lambent orbs were turned on me, ‘I will read your evil deeds.’

“The catalogue was a long one and it struck me that many of
the statements were not worth recording, but truth to tell I was
paying little heed, for I was absorbed in watching Death, and
wondering how all his bones hung together without any sinews or
integuments or even so much as a strand or two of wire.

“You know how you feel when you are so ill that nothing
surprises and nothing greatly affects you? That was how I felt,
and, while I regarded Death with a mitigated interest and some
faint curiosity, while I speculated whether, when he got up, the


                        By Frank Athelstane Swettenham 151

scythe, which was now leaning against the back of the chair,
would knock it down and make a clatter that would wake every
one in the Ward, I turned a practically deaf ear to the long list
of my crimes, from concealing the truth and stealing sugar, to
the robust misdemeanours of later years. There was a sort of
rattle, as Death unwound his leg bones and closed the book, which
he carefully fastened, saying as he did so, ‘To-night your record
is closed and you will be required to give an account of it.
Now,’ he continued, ‘my mission is ended, my time is up, and I
must leave you.’

“He said this in a tone of dispassionate weariness, but rather as
though he regretted having to deliver such an unpleasant message.
He stood up and placing the book under his left arm and the scythe
over his right shoulder he prepared to go.

“Then, however, the feelings of a host asserted themselves and I
said, ‘I trust you will not leave without taking something, and I
am sorry that there is nothing better to offer you, but pray drink
my tisane which is on the table by you.’ Death gravely thanked me
and turning to the table he took the bottle of tisane and poured some
into the graduated glass measure that stood at his hand. He looked
at me for the last time with those curiously lighted eye-sockets
and realising, I suppose, the over-grim humour of drinking to my
health, he said nothing, but slowly poured the tisane through the
cavity made by opening his jaws. I watched the liquid with great
interest as it trickled down his ribs and back bone, crept along his
leg bones and finally reaching the floor made a little pool by the
side of the chair. As Death replaced the glass on the table and
moved away I felt that his politeness in accepting my tisane must
have made his bones very uncomfortable, but I hardly liked to
suggest that he should dry himself.

“Whilst I still had this in my mind, I saw him reach the door,


                        152 Death’s Devotion

open it and go out. It could scarce have closed ere I fell

“In that vague returning consciousness which comes with
awakening, that dawn of mental and physical sensation which we
can, at will, slightly prolong, but in cases of severe illness is always
longer than in health, I heard the Doctor and the Sister talking
by my bed, and speaking in eager tones of surprise and delight.
I opened my eyes and I saw my friends with faces freed from
anxiety smiling into mine.

“‘You are safe,’ the Doctor said, ‘it is only a question of time
now, the fever has left you. The change came about 3 A.M., you
had been restless till then and we feared the worst, but suddenly
you grew quiet and fell into a deep sleep from which we are not
sorry to see you awake, for you ought to be fed, though the sleep
has saved your life. Your temperature has gone down to almost
normal and your pulse is stronger—all you want now is nourish-
ment. You have had a very narrow escape and when you are
strong enough you should leave the country for a change to a more
temperate climate. You seem to have spilt your tisane some time
during the night, but we don’t know how you did it, for the
potion has fallen out of your reach and yet neither bottle nor glass
is upset and no one saw you do it.’

“I looked from the Doctor to the floor and there, close by the
chair, exactly in the spot where Death had stood, was the still wet
stain of the potion which had been so strangely diverted from its
legitimate use.”

MLA citation:

Swettenham, Frank Athelstane. “Death’s Devotion.” The Yellow Book, vol. 9, April 1896, pp. 145-152. Yellow Book Digital Edition, edited by Dennis Denisoff and Lorraine Janzen Kooistra, 2010-2014. Yellow Nineties 2.0, Ryerson University Centre for Digital Humanities, 2020.