Hetherlegh is the nicest doctor there ever was, the narrator of this longish tale informs the reader. His favorite prescription to patients is “Lie low, go slow and keep cool.” He also says that more men (I’m sure he means to include women here as well) are killed by overwork than the importance of this world justifies. Speaking obliquely of the manuscript that John Pansay wrote shortly before his death, it’s the doctor’s opinion Pansay died of overwork and his delusions of ghosts were part of that. He may or may not have been a “blackguard” to Mrs. Keith-Wessington. He certainly was engaged to Miss Kitty Mannering. Miss Mannering broke the engagement off.
The narrator was the one who suggested Pansay write his story down because “When little boys have learned a new bad word they are never happy till they have chalked it up on a door. And this also is Literature.” He then relates its contents to the reader.
Pansay confesses to an affair with a married woman, Mrs. Agnes Keith-Wessington, begun aboard ship from England to India. They were deeply in love, but had to part ways once they reached India. When Pansay secured leave, they met in Simla, where he had a change of heart. Mrs. Wessington, however, did not. She implored him, “I’m sure it’s all a mistake—a hideous mistake!” She asked for forgiveness. The forgiveness never came and she eventually died of some undefined illness.
Later, when Jack is in love again and out riding with his fiancée, Miss Kitty Mannering, he sees Mrs. Wessington’s yellow rickshaw and the black and white liveried jhampanis (i.e., Indian rickshaw bearers) who used to pull it blocking their way. Agnes calls to him. He pulls his horse to a halt, but Kitty rides right on through—jhampanis, rickshaw and all.
And his life starts falling apart.
Given that Kipling was about 19 when he wrote this story, it’s not bad. There are few awkward points. The writer intrudes at one point, not as narrator, but to comment on mixed metaphors. Also, to remove all ambiguity on the reality of the apparition of Mrs. Wessington, he has the jhampanis, all brothers, get sick and die so as to accompany their mistress into the afterlife. Poor devils.
Overall, this is probably too long and too melodramatic for most modern readers (after all, it begins with the ending) but it does have its moments. The nicest doctor there ever was clearly doesn’t have clue when it comes to actually treating people. The breaking of Pansay’s engagement involves the application of a horsewhip—but not to a horse.