Phileas Fogg had heard what Sir Francis said, and, as soon as the procession had disappeared, asked: “What is a suttee?”
“A suttee,” returned the general, “is a human sacrifice, but a voluntary one. The woman you have just seen will be burned to-morrow at the dawn of day.”
“Oh, the scoundrels!” cried Passepartout, who could not repress his indignation.
“And the corpse?” asked Mr. Fogg.
“Is that of the prince, her husband,” said the guide; “an independent rajah of Bundelcund.”
“Is it possible,” resumed Phileas Fogg, his voice betraying not the least emotion, “that these barbarous customs still exist in India, and that the English have been unable to put a stop to them?”
“These sacrifices do not occur in the larger portion of India,” replied Sir Francis; “but we have no power over these savage territories, and especially here in Bundelcund. The whole district north of the Vindhias is the theatre of incessant murders and pillage.”
“The poor wretch!” exclaimed Passepartout, “to be burned alive!”
“Yes,” returned Sir Francis, “burned alive. And, if she were not, you cannot conceive what treatment she would be obliged to submit to from her relatives. They would shave off her hair, feed her on a scanty allowance of rice, treat her with contempt; she would be looked upon as an unclean creature, and would die in some corner, like a scurvy dog. The prospect of so frightful an existence drives these poor creatures to the sacrifice much more than love or religious fanaticism. Sometimes, however, the sacrifice is really voluntary, and it requires the active interference of the Government to prevent it. Several years ago, when I was living at Bombay, a young widow asked permission of the governor to be burned along with her husband’s body; but, as you may imagine, he refused. The woman left the town, took refuge with an independent rajah, and there carried out her self-devoted purpose.”
While Sir Francis was speaking, the guide shook his head several times, and now said: “The sacrifice which will take place to-morrow at dawn is not a voluntary one.”
“How do you know?”
“Everybody knows about this affair in Bundelcund.”
“But the wretched creature did not seem to be making any resistance,” observed Sir Francis.
“That was because they had intoxicated her with fumes of hemp and opium.”
“But where are they taking her?”
“To the pagoda of Pillaji, two miles from here; she will pass the night there.”
“And the sacrifice will take place–”
“To-morrow, at the first light of dawn.”
The guide now led the elephant out of the thicket, and leaped upon his neck. Just at the moment that he was about to urge Kiouni forward with a peculiar whistle, Mr. Fogg stopped him, and, turning to Sir Francis Cromarty, said, “Suppose we save this woman.”
“Save the woman, Mr. Fogg!”
“I have yet twelve hours to spare; I can devote them to that.”
“Why, you are a man of heart!”
“Sometimes,” replied Phileas Fogg, quietly; “when I have the time.”