Life's Handicap, by Rudyard Kipling

On Greenhow Hill

 To Love’s low voice she lent a careless ear;
 Her hand within his rosy fingers lay,
 A chilling weight. She would not turn or hear;
 But with averted face went on her way.
 But when pale Death, all featureless and grim,
 Lifted his bony hand, and beckoning
 Held out his cypress-wreath, she followed him,
 And Love was left forlorn and wondering,
 That she who for his bidding would not stay,
 At Death’s first whisper rose and went away.
RIVALS.

‘Ohe, Ahmed Din! Shafiz Ullah ahoo! Bahadur Khan, where are you? Come out of the tents, as I have done, and fight against the English. Don’t kill your own kin! Come out to me!’

The deserter from a native corps was crawling round the outskirts of the camp, firing at intervals, and shouting invitations to his old comrades. Misled by the rain and the darkness, he came to the English wing of the camp, and with his yelping and rifle-practice disturbed the men. They had been making roads all day, and were tired.

Ortheris was sleeping at Learoyd’s feet. ‘Wot’s all that?’ he said thickly. Learoyd snored, and a Snider bullet ripped its way through the tent wall. The men swore. ‘It’s that bloomin’ deserter from the Aurangabadis,’ said Ortheris. ‘Git up, some one, an’ tell ’im ‘e’s come to the wrong shop.’

‘Go to sleep, little man,’ said Mulvaney, who was steaming nearest the door. ‘I can’t arise an’ expaytiate with him. ’Tis rainin’ entrenchin’ tools outside.’

‘‘Tain’t because you bloomin’ can’t. It’s ‘cause you bloomin’ won’t, ye long, limp, lousy, lazy beggar, you. ‘Ark to’im ‘owlin’!’

‘Wot’s the good of argifying? Put a bullet into the swine! ‘E’s keepin’ us awake!’ said another voice.

A subaltern shouted angrily, and a dripping sentry whined from the darkness —

‘‘Tain’t no good, sir. I can’t see ’im. ‘E’s ‘idin’ somewhere down ‘ill.’

Ortheris tumbled out of his blanket. ‘Shall I try to get ’im, sir?’ said he.

‘No,’ was the answer. ‘Lie down. I won’t have the whole camp shooting all round the clock. Tell him to go and pot his friends.’

Ortheris considered for a moment. Then, putting his head under the tent wall, he called, as a ‘bus conductor calls in a block, ‘‘Igher up, there! ‘Igher up!’

The men laughed, and the laughter was carried down wind to the deserter, who, hearing that he had made a mistake, went off to worry his own regiment half a mile away. He was received with shots; the Aurangabadis were very angry with him for disgracing their colours.

‘An’ that’s all right,’ said Ortheris, withdrawing his head as he heard the hiccough of the Sniders in the distance. ‘S’elp me Gawd, tho’, that man’s not fit to live — messin’ with my beauty-sleep this way.’

‘Go out and shoot him in the morning, then,’ said the subaltern incautiously. ‘Silence in the tents now. Get your rest, men.’

Ortheris lay down with a happy little sigh, and in two minutes there was no sound except the rain on the canvas and the all-embracing and elemental snoring of Learoyd.

The camp lay on a bare ridge of the Himalayas, and for a week had been waiting for a flying column to make connection. The nightly rounds of the deserter and his friends had become a nuisance.

In the morning the men dried themselves in hot sunshine and cleaned their grimy accoutrements. The native regiment was to take its turn of road-making that day while the Old Regiment loafed.

‘I’m goin’ to lay for a shot at that man,’ said Ortheris, when he had finished washing out his rifle. ‘‘E comes up the watercourse every evenin’ about five o’clock. If we go and lie out on the north ‘ill a bit this afternoon we’ll get ’im.’

‘You’re a bloodthirsty little mosquito,’ said Mulvaney, blowing blue clouds into the air. ‘But I suppose I will have to come wid you. Fwhere’s Jock?’

‘Gone out with the Mixed Pickles, ‘cause ‘e thinks ‘isself a bloomin’ marksman,’ said Ortheris with scorn.

The ‘Mixed Pickles’ were a detachment of picked shots, generally employed in clearing spurs of hills when the enemy were too impertinent. This taught the young officers how to handle men, and did not do the enemy much harm. Mulvaney and Ortheris strolled out of camp, and passed the Aurangabadis going to their road-making.

‘You’ve got to sweat today,’ said Ortheris genially. ‘We’re going to get your man. You didn’t knock ’im out last night by any chance, any of you?’

‘No. The pig went away mocking us. I had one shot at him,’ said a private. ‘He’s my cousin, and I ought to have cleared our dishonour. But good luck to you.’

They went cautiously to the north hill, Ortheris leading, because, as he explained,‘this is a long-range show, an’ I’ve got to do it.’ His was an almost passionate devotion to his rifle, which, by barrack-room report, he was supposed to kiss every night before turning in. Charges and scuffles he held in contempt, and, when they were inevitable, slipped between Mulvaney and Learoyd, bidding them to fight for his skin as well as their own. They never failed him. He trotted along, questing like a hound on a broken trail, through the wood of the north hill. At last he was satisfied, and threw himself down on the soft pine-needled slope that commanded a clear view of the watercourse and a brown, bare hillside beyond it. The trees made a scented darkness in which an army corps could have hidden from the sun-glare without.

‘‘Ere’s the tail o’ the wood,’ said Ortheris. ‘‘E’s got to come up the watercourse, ‘cause it gives ’im cover. We’ll lay ’ere. ‘Tain’t not arf so bloomin’ dusty neither.’

He buried his nose in a clump of scentless white violets. No one had come to tell the flowers that the season of their strength was long past, and they had bloomed merrily in the twilight of the pines.

‘This is something like,’ he said luxuriously. ‘Wot a ‘evinly clear drop for a bullet acrost! How much d’you make it, Mulvaney?’

‘Seven hunder. Maybe a trifle less, bekaze the air’s so thin.’

WOP! WOP! WOP! went a volley of musketry on the rear face of the north hill.

‘Curse them Mixed Pickles firin’ at nothin’! They’ll scare arf the country.’

‘Thry a sightin’ shot in the middle of the row,’ said Mulvaney, the man of many wiles. ‘There’s a red rock yonder he’ll be sure to pass. Quick!’

Ortheris ran his sight up to six hundred yards and fired. The bullet threw up a feather of dust by a clump of gentians at the base of the rock.

‘Good enough!’ said Ortheris, snapping the scale down. ‘You snick your sights to mine or a little lower. You’re always firin’ high. But remember, first shot to me. O Lordy! but it’s a lovely afternoon.’

The noise of the firing grew louder, and there was a tramping of men in the wood. The two lay very quiet, for they knew that the British soldier is desperately prone to fire at anything that moves or calls. Then Learoyd appeared, his tunic ripped across the breast by a bullet, looking ashamed of himself. He flung down on the pine-needles, breathing in snorts.

‘One o’ them damned gardeners o’ th’ Pickles,’ said he, fingering the rent. ‘Firin’ to th’ right flank, when he knowed I was there. If I knew who he was I’d ‘a’ rippen the hide offan him. Look at ma tunic!’

‘That’s the spishil trustability av a marksman. Train him to hit a fly wid a stiddy rest at seven hunder, an’ he loose on anythin’ he sees or hears up to th’ mile. You’re well out av that fancy-firin’ gang, Jock. Stay here.’

‘Bin firin’ at the bloomin’ wind in the bloomin’ tree-tops,’ said Ortheris with a chuckle. ‘I’ll show you some firin’ later on.’

They wallowed in the pine-needles, and the sun warmed them where they lay. The Mixed Pickles ceased firing, and returned to camp, and left the wood to a few scared apes. The watercourse lifted up its voice in the silence, and talked foolishly to the rocks. Now and again the dull thump of a blasting charge three miles away told that the Aurangabadis were in difficulties with their road-making. The men smiled as they listened and lay still, soaking in the warm leisure. Presently Learoyd, between the whiffs of his pipe —

‘Seems queer — about ’im yonder — desertin’ at all.’

‘‘E’ll be a bloomin’ side queerer when I’ve done with ’im,’ said Ortheris. They were talking in whispers, for the stillness of the wood and the desire of slaughter lay heavy upon them.

‘I make no doubt he had his reasons for desertin’; but, my faith! I make less doubt ivry man has good reason for killin’ him,’ said Mulvaney.

‘Happen there was a lass tewed up wi’ it. Men do more than more for th’ sake of a lass.’

‘They make most av us ‘list. They’ve no manner av right to make us desert.’

‘Ah; they make us ‘list, or their fathers do,’ said Learoyd softly, his helmet over his eyes. Ortheris’s brows contracted savagely. He was watching the valley. ‘If it’s a girl I’ll shoot the beggar twice over, an’ second time for bein’ a fool. You’re blasted sentimental all of a sudden. Thinkin’ o’ your last near shave?’

‘Nay, lad; ah was but thinkin’ o’ what had happened.’

‘An’ fwhat has happened, ye lumberin’ child av calamity, that you’re lowing like a cow-calf at the back av the pasture, an’ suggestin’ invidious excuses for the man Stanley’s goin’ to kill. Ye’ll have to wait another hour yet, little man. Spit it out, Jock, an’ bellow melojus to the moon. It takes an earthquake or a bullet graze to fetch aught out av you. Discourse, Don Juan! The a-moors av Lotharius Learoyd! Stanley, kape a rowlin’ rig’mental eye on the valley.’

‘It’s along o’ yon hill there,’ said Learoyd, watching the bare sub-Himalayan spur that reminded him of his Yorkshire moors. He was speaking more to himself than his fellows. ‘Ay,’ said he, ‘Rumbolds Moor stands up ower Skipton town, an’ Greenhow Hill stands up ower Pately Brig. I reckon you’ve never heeard tell o’ Greenhow Hill, but yon bit o’ bare stuff if there was nobbut a white road windin’ is like ut; strangely like. Moors an’ moors an’ moors, wi’ never a tree for shelter, an’ gray houses wi’ flagstone rooves, and pewits cryin’, an’ a windhover goin’ to and fro just like these kites. And cold! A wind that cuts you like a knife. You could tell Greenhow Hill folk by the red-apple colour o’ their cheeks an’ nose tips, and their blue eyes, driven into pinpoints by the wind. Miners mostly, burrowin’ for lead i’ th’ hillsides, followin’ the trail of th’ ore vein same as a field-rat. It was the roughest minin’ I ever seen. Yo’d come on a bit o’ creakin’ wood windlass like a well-head, an’ you was let down i’ th’ bight of a rope, fendin’ yoursen off the side wi’ one hand, carryin’ a candle stuck in a lump o’ clay with t’other, an’ clickin’ hold of a rope with t’other hand.’

‘An’ that’s three of them,’ said Mulvaney. ‘Must be a good climate in those parts.’

Learoyd took no heed.

‘An’ then yo’ came to a level, where you crept on your hands and knees through a mile o’ windin’ drift, an’ you come out into a cave-place as big as Leeds Townhall, with a engine pumpin’ water from workin’s ‘at went deeper still. It’s a queer country, let alone minin’, for the hill is full of those natural caves, an’ the rivers an’ the becks drops into what they call pot-holes, an’ come out again miles away.’

‘Wot was you doin’ there?’ said Ortheris.

‘I was a young chap then, an’ mostly went wi’ ‘osses, leadin’ coal and lead ore; but at th’ time I’m tellin’ on I was drivin’ the waggon-team i’ th’ big sumph. I didn’t belong to that country-side by rights. I went there because of a little difference at home, an’ at fust I took up wi’ a rough lot. One night we’d been drinkin’, an’ I must ha’ hed more than I could stand, or happen th’ ale was none so good. Though i’ them days, By for God, I never seed bad ale.’ He flung his arms over his head, and gripped a vast handful of white violets. ‘Nah,’ said he, ‘I never seed the ale I could not drink, the bacca I could not smoke, nor the lass I could not kiss. Well, we mun have a race home, the lot on us. I lost all th’ others, an’ when I was climbin’ ower one of them walls built o’ loose stones, I comes down into the ditch, stones and all, an’ broke my arm. Not as I knawed much about it, for I fell on th’ back of my head, an’ was knocked stupid like. An’ when I come to mysen it were mornin’, an’ I were lyin’ on the settle i’ Jesse Roantree’s houseplace, an’ ‘Liza Roantree was settin’ sewin’, I ached all ovver, and my mouth were like a lime-kiln. She gave me a drink out of a china mug wi’ gold letters —“A Present from Leeds”— as I looked at many and many a time at after. “Yo’re to lie still while Dr. Warbottom comes, because your arm’s broken, and father has sent a lad to fetch him. He found yo’ when he was goin’ to work, an’ carried you here on his back,” sez she. “Oa!” sez I; an’ I shet my eyes, for I felt ashamed o’ mysen. “Father’s gone to his work these three hours, an’ he said he’d tell ’em to get somebody to drive the tram.” The clock ticked, an’ a bee comed in the house, an’ they rung i’ my head like mill-wheels. An’ she give me another drink an’ settled the pillow. “Eh, but yo’re young to be getten drunk an’ such like, but yo’ won’t do it again, will yo’?”—“Noa,” sez I, “I wouldn’t if she’d not but stop they mill-wheels clatterin’.”’

‘Faith, it’s a good thing to be nursed by a woman when you’re sick!’ said Mulvaney. ‘Dir’ cheap at the price av twenty broken heads.’

Ortheris turned to frown across the valley. He had not been nursed by many women in his life.

‘An’ then Dr. Warbottom comes ridin’ up, an’ Jesse Roantree along with ’im. He was a high-larned doctor, but he talked wi’ poor folk same as theirsens. “What’s ta big agaate on naa?” he sings out. “Brekkin’ tha thick head?” An’ he felt me all ovver. “That’s none broken. Tha’ nobbut knocked a bit sillier than ordinary, an’ that’s daaft eneaf.” An’ soa he went on, callin’ me all the names he could think on, but settin’ my arm, wi’ Jesse’s help, as careful as could be. “Yo’ mun let the big oaf bide here a bit, Jesse,” he says, when he hed strapped me up an’ given me a dose o’ physic; “an’ you an’ Liza will tend him, though he’s scarcelins worth the trouble. An’ tha’ll lose tha work,” sez he, “an’ tha’ll be upon th’ Sick Club for a couple o’ months an’ more. Doesn’t tha think tha’s a fool?”’

‘But whin was a young man, high or low, the other av a fool, I’d like to know?’ said Mulvaney. ‘Sure, folly’s the only safe way to wisdom, for I’ve thried it.’

‘Wisdom!’ grinned Ortheris, scanning his comrades with uplifted chin. ‘You’re bloomin’ Solomons, you two, ain’t you?’

Learoyd went calmly on, with a steady eye like an ox chewing the cud.

‘And that was how I come to know ‘Liza Roantree. There’s some tunes as she used to sing — aw, she were always singin’— that fetches Greenhow Hill before my eyes as fair as yon brow across there. And she would learn me to sing bass, an’ I was to go to th’ chapel wi’ ’em where Jesse and she led the singin’, th’ old man playin’ the fiddle. He was a strange chap, old Jesse, fair mad wi’ music, an’ he made me promise to learn the big fiddle when my arm was better. It belonged to him, and it stood up in a big case alongside o’ th’ eight-day clock, but Willie Satterthwaite, as played it in the chapel, had getten deaf as a door-post, and it vexed Jesse, as he had to rap him ower his head wi’ th’ fiddle-stick to make him give ower sawin’ at th’ right time.

‘But there was a black drop in it all, an’ it was a man in a black coat that brought it. When th’ Primitive Methodist preacher came to Greenhow, he would always stop wi’ Jesse Roantree, an’ he laid hold of me from th’ beginning. It seemed I wor a soul to be saved, and he meaned to do it. At th’ same time I jealoused ‘at he were keen o’ savin’ ‘Liza Roantree’s soul as well, and I could ha’ killed him many a time. An’ this went on till one day I broke out, an’ borrowed th’ brass for a drink from ‘Liza. After fower days I come back, wi’ my tail between my legs, just to see ‘Liza again. But Jesse were at home an’ th’ preacher — th’ Reverend Amos Barraclough. ‘Liza said naught, but a bit o’ red come into her face as were white of a regular thing. Says Jesse, tryin’ his best to be civil, “Nay, lad, it’s like this. You’ve getten to choose which way it’s goin’ to be. I’ll ha’ nobody across ma doorstep as goes a-drinkin’, an’ borrows my lass’s money to spend i’ their drink. Ho’d tha tongue, ‘Liza,” sez he, when she wanted to put in a word ‘at I were welcome to th’ brass, and she were none afraid that I wouldn’t pay it back. Then the Reverend cuts in, seein’ as Jesse were losin’ his temper, an’ they fair beat me among them. But it were ‘Liza, as looked an’ said naught, as did more than either o’ their tongues, an’ soa I concluded to get converted.’

‘Fwhat?’ shouted Mulvaney. Then, checking himself, he said softly, ‘Let be! Let be! Sure the Blessed Virgin is the mother of all religion an’ most women; an’ there’s a dale av piety in a girl if the men would only let ut stay there. I’d ha’ been converted myself under the circumstances.’

‘Nay, but,’ pursued Learoyd with a blush, ‘I meaned it.’

Ortheris laughed as loudly as he dared, having regard to his business at the time.

‘Ay, Ortheris, you may laugh, but you didn’t know yon preacher Barraclough — a little white-faced chap, wi’ a voice as ‘ud wile a bird off an a bush, and a way o’ layin’ hold of folks as made them think they’d never had a live man for a friend before. You never saw him, an’— an’— you never seed ‘Liza Roantree — never seed ‘Liza Roantree. . . . Happen it was as much ‘Liza as th’ preacher and her father, but anyways they all meaned it, an’ I was fair shamed o’ mysen, an’ so I become what they call a changed character. And when I think on, it’s hard to believe as yon chap going to prayer-meetin’s, chapel, and class-meetin’s were me. But I never had naught to say for mysen, though there was a deal o’ shoutin’, and old Sammy Strother, as were almost clemmed to death and doubled up with the rheumatics, would sing out, “Joyful! Joyful!” and ‘at it were better to go up to heaven in a coal-basket than down to hell i’ a coach an’ six. And he would put his poor old claw on my shoulder, sayin’, “Doesn’t tha feel it, tha great lump? Doesn’t tha feel it?” An’ sometimes I thought I did, and then again I thought I didn’t, an’ how was that?’

‘The iverlastin’ nature av mankind,’ said Mulvaney. ‘An’, furthermore, I misdoubt you were built for the Primitive Methodians. They’re a new corps anyways. I hold by the Ould Church, for she’s the mother of them all — ay, an’ the father, too. I like her bekaze she’s most remarkable regimental in her fittings. I may die in Honolulu, Nova Zambra, or Cape Cayenne, but wherever I die, me bein’ fwhat I am, an’ a priest handy, I go under the same orders an’ the same words an’ the same unction as tho’ the Pope himself come down from the roof av St. Peter’s to see me off. There’s neither high nor low, nor broad nor deep, nor betwixt nor between wid her, an’ that’s what I like. But mark you, she’s no manner av Church for a wake man, bekaze she takes the body and the soul av him, onless he has his proper work to do. I remember when my father died that was three months comin’ to his grave; begad he’d ha’ sold the shebeen above our heads for ten minutes’ quittance of purgathory. An’ he did all he could. That’s why I say ut takes a strong man to deal with the Ould Church, an’ for that reason you’ll find so many women go there. An’ that same’s a conundrum.’

‘Wot’s the use o’ worritin’ ‘bout these things?’ said Ortheris. ‘You’re bound to find all out quicker nor you want to, any’ow.’ He jerked the cartridge out of the breech-block into the palm of his hand. ‘‘Ere’s my chaplain,’ he said, and made the venomous black-headed bullet bow like a marionette. ‘‘E’s goin’ to teach a man all about which is which, an’ wot’s true, after all, before sundown. But wot ‘appened after that, Jock?’

‘There was one thing they boggled at, and almost shut th’ gate i’ my face for, and that were my dog Blast, th’ only one saved out o’ a litter o’ pups as was blowed up when a keg o’ minin’ powder loosed off in th’ store-keeper’s hut. They liked his name no better than his business, which were fightin’ every dog he comed across; a rare good dog, wi’ spots o’ black and pink on his face, one ear gone, and lame o’ one side wi’ being driven in a basket through an iron roof, a matter of half a mile.

‘They said I mun give him up ‘cause he were worldly and low; and would I let mysen be shut out of heaven for the sake on a dog? “Nay,” says I, “if th’ door isn’t wide enough for th’ pair on us, we’ll stop outside, for we’ll none be parted.” And th’ preacher spoke up for Blast, as had a likin’ for him from th’ first — I reckon that was why I come to like th’ preacher — and wouldn’t hear o’ changin’ his name to Bless, as some o’ them wanted. So th’ pair on us became reg’lar chapel-members. But it’s hard for a young chap o’ my build to cut traces from the world, th’ flesh, an’ the devil all uv a heap. Yet I stuck to it for a long time, while th’ lads as used to stand about th’ town-end an’ lean ower th’ bridge, spittin’ into th’ beck o’ a Sunday, would call after me, “Sitha, Learoyd, when’s ta bean to preach, ‘cause we’re comin’ to hear tha.”— “Ho’d tha jaw. He hasn’t getten th’ white choaker on ta morn,” another lad would say, and I had to double my fists hard i’ th’ bottom of my Sunday coat, and say to mysen, “If ’twere Monday and I warn’t a member o’ the Primitive Methodists, I’d leather all th’ lot of yond’.” That was th’ hardest of all — to know that I could fight and I mustn’t fight.’

Sympathetic grunts from Mulvaney.

‘So what wi’ singin’, practising and class-meetin’s, and th’ big fiddle, as he made me take between my knees, I spent a deal o’ time i’ Jesse Roantree’s house-place. But often as I was there, th’ preacher fared to me to go oftener, and both th’ old man an’ th’ young woman were pleased to have him. He lived i’ Pately Brig, as were a goodish step off, but he come. He come all the same. I liked him as well or better as any man I’d ever seen i’ one way, and yet I hated him wi’ all my heart i’ t’other, and we watched each other like cat and mouse, but civil as you please, for I was on my best behaviour, and he was that fair and open that I was bound to be fair with him. Rare good company he was, if I hadn’t wanted to wring his cliver little neck half of the time. Often and often when he was goin’ from Jesse’s I’d set him a bit on the road.’

‘See ’im ‘ome, you mean?’ said Ortheris.

‘Ay. It’s a way we have i’ Yorkshire o’ seein’ friends off. You was a friend as I didn’t want to come back, and he didn’t want me to come back neither, and so we’d walk together towards Pately, and then he’d set me back again, and there we’d be wal two o’clock i’ the mornin’ settin’ each other to an’ fro like a blasted pair o’ pendulums twixt hill and valley, long after th’ light had gone out i’ ‘Liza’s window, as both on us had been looking at, pretending to watch the moon.’

‘Ah!’ broke in Mulvaney, ‘ye’d no chanst against the maraudin’ psalm-singer. They’ll take the airs an’ the graces instid av the man nine times out av ten, an’ they only find the blunder later — the wimmen.’

‘That’s just where yo’re wrong,’ said Learoyd, reddening under the freckled tan of his cheeks. ‘I was th’ first wi’ ‘Liza, an’ yo’d think that were enough. But th’ parson were a steady-gaited sort o’ chap, and Jesse were strong o’ his side, and all th’ women i’ the congregation dinned it to ‘Liza ‘at she were fair fond to take up wi’ a wastrel ne’er-do-weel like me, as was scarcelins respectable an’ a fighting dog at his heels. It was all very well for her to be doing me good and saving my soul, but she must mind as she didn’t do herself harm. They talk o’ rich folk bein’ stuck up an’ genteel, but for cast-iron pride o’ respectability there’s naught like poor chapel folk. It’s as cold as th’ wind o’ Greenhow Hill — ay, and colder, for ’twill never change. And now I come to think on it, one at strangest things I know is ‘at they couldn’t abide th’ thought o’ soldiering. There’s a vast o’ fightin’ i’ th’ Bible, and there’s a deal of Methodists i’ th’ army; but to hear chapel folk talk yo’d think that soldierin’ were next door, an’ t’other side, to hangin’. I’ their meetin’s all their talk is o’ fightin’. When Sammy Strother were stuck for summat to say in his prayers, he’d sing out, “Th’ sword o’ th’ Lord and o’ Gideon.” They were allus at it about puttin’ on th’ whole armour o’ righteousness, an’ fightin’ the good fight o’ faith. And then, atop o’ ‘t all, they held a prayer-meetin’ ower a young chap as wanted to ‘list, and nearly deafened him, till he picked up his hat and fair ran away. And they’d tell tales in th’ Sunday-school o’ bad lads as had been thumped and brayed for bird-nesting o’ Sundays and playin’ truant o’ week-days, and how they took to wrestlin’, dog-fightin’, rabbit-runnin’, and drinkin’, till at last, as if ’twere a hepitaph on a gravestone, they damned him across th’ moors wi’, “an’ then he went and ‘listed for a soldier,” an’ they’d all fetch a deep breath, and throw up their eyes like a hen drinkin’.’

‘Fwhy is ut?’ said Mulvaney, bringing down his hand on his thigh with a crack.’ In the name av God, fwhy is ut? I’ve seen ut, tu. They cheat an’ they swindle an’ they lie an’ they slander, an’ fifty things fifty times worse; but the last an’ the worst by their reckonin’ is to serve the Widdy honest. It’s like the talk av childher — seein’ things all round.’

‘Plucky lot of fightin’ good fights of whatsername they’d do if we didn’t see they had a quiet place to fight in. And such fightin’ as theirs is! Cats on the tiles. T’other callin’ to which to come on. I’d give a month’s pay to get some o’ them broad-backed beggars in London sweatin’ through a day’s road-makin’ an’ a night’s rain. They’d carry on a deal afterwards — same as we’re supposed to carry on. I’ve bin turned out of a measly arf-license pub down Lambeth way, full o’ greasy kebmen, ‘fore now,’ said Ortheris with an oath.

‘Maybe you were dhrunk,’ said Mulvaney soothingly.

‘Worse nor that. The Forders were drunk. I was wearin’ the Queen’s uniform.’

‘I’d no particular thought to be a soldier i’ them days,’ said Learoyd, still keeping his eye on the bare hill opposite, ‘but this sort o’ talk put it i’ my head. They was so good, th’ chapel folk, that they tumbled ower t’other side. But I stuck to it for ‘Liza’s sake, specially as she was learning me to sing the bass part in a horotorio as Jesse were gettin’ up. She sung like a throstle hersen, and we had practisin’s night after night for a matter of three months.’

‘I know what a horotorio is,’ said Ortheris pertly. ‘It’s a sort of chaplain’s sing-song — words all out of the Bible, and hullabaloojah choruses.’

‘Most Greenhow Hill folks played some instrument or t’other, an’ they all sung so you might have heard them miles away, and they were so pleased wi’ the noise they made they didn’t fair to want anybody to listen. The preacher sung high seconds when he wasn’t playin’ the flute, an’ they set me, as hadn’t got far with big fiddle, again Willie Satterthwaite, to jog his elbow when he had to get a’ gate playin’. Old Jesse was happy if ever a man was, for he were th’ conductor an’ th’ first fiddle an’ th’ leadin’ singer, beatin’ time wi’ his fiddle-stick, till at times he’d rap with it on the table, and cry out, “Now, you mun all stop; it’s my turn.” And he’d face round to his front, fair sweating wi’ pride, to sing th’ tenor solos. But he were grandest i’ th’ choruses, waggin’ his head, flinging his arms round like a windmill, and singin’ hisself black in the face. A rare singer were Jesse.

‘Yo’ see, I was not o’ much account wi’ ’em all exceptin’ to ‘Liza Roantree, and I had a deal o’ time settin’ quiet at meetings and horotorio practises to hearken their talk, and if it were strange to me at beginnin’, it got stranger still at after, when I was shut on it, and could study what it meaned.

‘Just after th’ horotorios come off, ‘Liza, as had allus been weakly like, was took very bad. I walked Dr. Warbottom’s horse up and down a deal of times while he were inside, where they wouldn’t let me go, though I fair ached to see her.

‘“She’ll be better i’ noo, lad — better i’ noo,” he used to say. “Tha mun ha’ patience.” Then they said if I was quiet I might go in, and th’ Reverend Amos Barraclough used to read to her lyin’ propped up among th’ pillows. Then she began to mend a bit, and they let me carry her on to th’ settle, and when it got warm again she went about same as afore. Th’ preacher and me and Blast was a deal together i’ them days, and i’ one way we was rare good comrades. But I could ha’ stretched him time and again with a good will. I mind one day he said he would like to go down into th’ bowels o’ th’ earth, and see how th’ Lord had builded th’ framework o’ th’ everlastin’ hills. He were one of them chaps as had a gift o’ sayin’ things. They rolled off the tip of his clever tongue, same as Mulvaney here, as would ha’ made a rare good preacher if he had nobbut given his mind to it. I lent him a suit o’ miner’s kit as almost buried th’ little man, and his white face down i’ th’ coat-collar and hat-flap looked like the face of a boggart, and he cowered down i’ th’ bottom o’ the waggon. I was drivin’ a tram as led up a bit of an incline up to th’ cave where the engine was pumpin’, and where th’ ore was brought up and put into th’ waggons as went down o’ themselves, me puttin’ th’ brake on and th’ horses a-trottin’ after. Long as it was daylight we were good friends, but when we got fair into th’ dark, and could nobbut see th’ day shinin’ at the hole like a lamp at a street-end, I feeled downright wicked. Ma religion dropped all away from me when I looked back at him as were always comin’ between me and ‘Liza. The talk was ‘at they were to be wed when she got better, an’ I couldn’t get her to say yes or nay to it. He began to sing a hymn in his thin voice, and I came out wi’ a chorus that was all cussin’ an’ swearin’ at my horses, an’ I began to know how I hated him. He were such a little chap, too. I could drop him wi’ one hand down Garstang’s Copper-hole — a place where th’ beck slithered ower th’ edge on a rock, and fell wi’ a bit of a whisper into a pit as no rope i’ Greenhow could plump.’

Again Learoyd rooted up the innocent violets. ‘Ay, he should see th’ bowels o’ th’ earth an’ never naught else. I could take him a mile or two along th’ drift, and leave him wi’ his candle doused to cry hallelujah, wi’ none to hear him and say amen. I was to lead him down th’ ladder-way to th’ drift where Jesse Roantree was workin’, and why shouldn’t he slip on th’ ladder, wi’ my feet on his fingers till they loosed grip, and I put him down wi’ my heel? If I went fust down th’ ladder I could click hold on him and chuck him over my head, so as he should go squshin’ down the shaft, breakin’ his bones at ev’ry timberin’ as Bill Appleton did when he was fresh, and hadn’t a bone left when he wrought to th’ bottom. Niver a blasted leg to walk from Pately. Niver an arm to put round ‘Liza Roantree’s waist. Niver no more — niver no more.’

The thick lips curled back over the yellow teeth, and that flushed face was not pretty to look upon. Mulvaney nodded sympathy, and Ortheris, moved by his comrade’s passion, brought up the rifle to his shoulder, and searched the hillside for his quarry, muttering ribaldry about a sparrow, a spout, and a thunder-storm. The voice of the watercourse supplied the necessary small talk till Learoyd picked up his story.

‘But it’s none so easy to kill a man like yon. When I’d given up my horses to th’ lad as took my place and I was showin’ th’ preacher th’ workin’s, shoutin’ into his ear across th’ clang o’ th’ pumpin’ engines, I saw he were afraid o’ naught; and when the lamplight showed his black eyes, I could feel as he was masterin’ me again. I were no better nor Blast chained up short and growlin’ i’ the depths of him while a strange dog went safe past.

‘“Th’art a coward and a fool,” I said to mysen; an’ I wrestled i’ my mind again’ him till, when we come to Garstang’s Copper-hole, I laid hold o’ the preacher and lifted him up over my head and held him into the darkest on it. “Now, lad,” I says “it’s to be one or t’other on us — thee or me — for ‘Liza Roantree. Why, isn’t thee afraid for thysen?” I says, for he were still i’ my arms as a sack. “Nay; I’m but afraid for thee, my poor lad, as knows naught,” says he. I set him down on th’ edge, an’ th’ beck run stiller, an’ there was no more buzzin’ in my head like when th’ bee come through th’ window o’ Jesse’s house. “What dost tha mean?” says I.

‘“I’ve often thought as thou ought to know,” says he, “but ’twas hard to tell thee. ‘Liza Roantree’s for neither on us, nor for nobody o’ this earth. Dr. Warbottom says — and he knows her, and her mother before her — that she is in a decline, and she cannot live six months longer. He’s known it for many a day. Steady, John! Steady!” says he. And that weak little man pulled me further back and set me again’ him, and talked it all over quiet and still, me turnin’ a bunch o’ candles in my hand, and counting them ower and ower again as I listened. A deal on it were th’ regular preachin’ talk, but there were a vast lot as made me begin to think as he were more of a man than I’d ever given him credit for, till I were cut as deep for him as I were for mysen.

‘Six candles we had, and we crawled and climbed all that day while they lasted, and I said to mysen, “‘Liza Roantree hasn’t six months to live.” And when we came into th’ daylight again we were like dead men to look at, an’ Blast come behind us without so much as waggin’ his tail. When I saw ‘Liza again she looked at me a minute and says, “Who’s telled tha? For I see tha knows.” And she tried to smile as she kissed me, and I fair broke down.

‘Yo’ see, I was a young chap i’ them days, and had seen naught o’ life, let alone death, as is allus a-waitin’. She telled me as Dr. Warbottom said as Greenhow air was too keen, and they were goin’ to Bradford, to Jesse’s brother David, as worked i’ a mill, and I mun hold up like a man and a Christian, and she’d pray for me. Well, and they went away, and the preacher that same back end o’ th’ year were appointed to another circuit, as they call it, and I were left alone on Greenhow Hill.

‘I tried, and I tried hard, to stick to th’ chapel, but ‘tweren’t th’ same thing at after. I hadn’t ‘Liza’s voice to follow i’ th’ singin’, nor her eyes a-shinin’ acrost their heads. And i’ th’ class-meetings they said as I mun have some experiences to tell, and I hadn’t a word to say for mysen.

‘Blast and me moped a good deal, and happen we didn’t behave ourselves over well, for they dropped us and wondered however they’d come to take us up. I can’t tell how we got through th’ time, while i’ th’ winter I gave up my job and went to Bradford. Old Jesse were at th’ door o’ th’ house, in a long street o’ little houses. He’d been sendin’ th’ children ‘way as were clatterin’ their clogs in th’ causeway, for she were asleep.

‘“Is it thee?” he says; “but you’re not to see her. I’ll none have her wakened for a nowt like thee. She’s goin’ fast, and she mun go in peace. Thou’lt never be good for naught i’ th’ world, and as long as thou lives thou’ll never play the big fiddle. Get away, lad, get away!” So he shut the door softly i’ my face.

‘Nobody never made Jesse my master, but it seemed to me he was about right, and I went away into the town and knocked up against a recruiting sergeant. The old tales o’ th’ chapel folk came buzzin’ into my head. I was to get away, and this were th’ regular road for the likes o’ me. I ‘listed there and then, took th’ Widow’s shillin’, and had a bunch o’ ribbons pinned i’ my hat.

‘But next day I found my way to David Roantree’s door, and Jesse came to open it. Says he, “Thou’s come back again wi’ th’ devil’s colours flyin’— thy true colours, as I always telled thee.”

‘But I begged and prayed of him to let me see her nobbut to say good-bye, till a woman calls down th’ stairway, “She says John Learoyd’s to come up.” Th’ old man shifts aside in a flash, and lays his hand on my arm, quite gentle like. “But thou’lt be quiet, John,” says he, “for she’s rare and weak. Thou was allus a good lad.”

‘Her eyes were all alive wi’ light, and her hair was thick on the pillow round her, but her cheeks were thin — thin to frighten a man that’s strong. “Nay, father, yo mayn’t say th’ devil’s colours. Them ribbons is pretty.” An’ she held out her hands for th’ hat, an’ she put all straight as a woman will wi’ ribbons. “Nay, but what they’re pretty,” she says. “Eh, but I’d ha’ liked to see thee i’ thy red coat, John, for thou was allus my own lad — my very own lad, and none else.”

‘She lifted up her arms, and they come round my neck i’ a gentle grip, and they slacked away, and she seemed fainting. “Now yo’ mun get away, lad,” says Jesse, and I picked up my hat and I came downstairs.

‘Th’ recruiting sergeant were waitin’ for me at th’ corner public-house. “Yo’ve seen your sweetheart?” says he. “Yes, I’ve seen her,” says I. “Well, we’ll have a quart now, and you’ll do your best to forget her,” says he, bein’ one o’ them smart, bustlin’ chaps. “Ay, sergeant,” says I. “Forget her.” And I’ve been forgettin’ her ever since.’

He threw away the wilted clump of white violets as he spoke. Ortheris suddenly rose to his knees, his rifle at his shoulder, and peered across the valley in the clear afternoon light. His chin cuddled the stock, and there was a twitching of the muscles of the right cheek as he sighted; Private Stanley Ortheris was engaged on his business. A speck of white crawled up the watercourse.

‘See that beggar? . . . Got ’im.’

Seven hundred yards away, and a full two hundred down the hillside, the deserter of the Aurangabadis pitched forward, rolled down a red rock, and lay very still, with his face in a clump of blue gentians, while a big raven flapped out of the pine wood to make investigation.

‘That’s a clean shot, little man,’ said Mulvaney.

Learoyd thoughtfully watched the smoke clear away.

‘Happen there was a lass tewed up wi’ him, too,’ said he.

Ortheris did not reply. He was staring across the valley, with the smile of the artist who looks on the completed work.

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/k/kipling/rudyard/lifes/chapter17.html

Last updated Saturday, March 1, 2014 at 20:38