THE autumn batch of recruits for the Old Regiment had just been uncarted. As usual they were said to be the worst draft that had ever come from the Depôt. Mulvaney looked them over, grunted scornfully, and immediately reported himself very sick.
‘Is it the regular autumn fever?’ said the doctor, who knew something of Terence’s ways. Your temperature’s normal.’
‘’Tis wan hundred and thirty-seven rookies to the bad, sorr. I’m not very sick now, but I will be dead if these boys are thrown at me in my rejuced condition. Doctor, dear, supposin’ you was in charge of three cholera camps an’—’
‘Go to hospital then, you old contriver,’ said the doctor, laughing.
Terence bundled himself into a blue bedgown — Dinah Shadd was away attending to a major’s lady, who preferred Dinah without a diploma to anybody else with a hundred — put a pipe in his teeth, and paraded the hospital balcony, exhorting Ortheris to be a father to the new recruits.
‘They’re mostly your own sort, little man,’ he said, with a grin; ‘the top-spit av Whitechapel. I’ll interogue them whin they’re more like something they never will be — an’ that’s a good honest soldier like me.’
Ortheris yapped indignantly. He knew as well as Terence what the coming work meant, and he thought Terence’s conduct mean. Then he strolled off to look at the new cattle, who were staring at the unfamiliar landscape with large eyes, and asking if the kites were eagles and the pariah-dogs jackals.
‘Well, you are a holy set of bean-faced beggars, you are,’ he said genially to a knot in the barrack square. Then, running his eye over them — ‘Fried fish an’ whelks is about your sort. Blimy if they haven’t sent some pink-eyed Jews too. You chap with the greasy ‘ed, which o’ the Solomons was ‘your father, Moses?’
‘My name’s Anderson,’ said a voice sullenly.
‘Oh, Samuelson! All right, Samuelson! An’ ‘ow many o’ the likes o’ you Sheenies are comin’ to spoil B Company?’
There is no scorn so complete as that of the old soldier for the new. It is right that this ‘should be so. A recruit must learn first that he is not a man but a thing, which in time, and by he mercy of Heaven, may develop into a soldier of the Queen if it takes care and attends to good advice. Ortheris’s tunic was open, his cap over-topped one eye, and his hands were behind his back as he walked round, growing more conemptuous at each step. The recruits did not dare to answer, for they were new boys in a strange school, who had called themselves soldiers at the Depôt in comfortable England.
‘Not a single pair o’ shoulders in the whole lot. I’ve seen some bad drafts in my time — some bloomin’ bad drafts; but this ’ere draft beats any’ draft I’ve ever known. Jock, come an’ look at these squidgy, ham-shanked beggars.’
Learoyd was walking across the square. He arrived slowly, circled round the knot as a whale circles round a shoal of small fry, said nothing, and went away whistling.
‘Yes, you may well look sheepy,’ Ortheris squeaked to the boys. ‘It’s the likes of you; breaks the ‘earts of the likes of us. We’ve got to lick you into shape, and never a ha’penny extry do we get for so doin’, and you ain’t never grateful neither. Don’t you go thinkin’ it’s the Colonel nor yet the company orf’cer that makes you. It’s us, you Johnnie Raws — you Johnnie bloomin’ Raws!’
A company officer had come up unperceived behind Ortheris at the end of this oration. ‘You may be right, Ortheris,’ he said quietly, ‘but I shouldn’t shout it.’ The recruits grinned as Ortheris saluted and collapsed.
Some days afterwards I was privileged to look over the new batch, and they were everything that Ortheris had said, and more. B Company had been devastated by forty or fifty of them; and B Company’s drill on parade was a sight to shudder at. Ortheris asked them lovingly whether they had not been sent out by mistake, and whether they had not better post themselves back to their friends. Learoyd thrashed them methodically one by one, without haste but without slovenliness; and the older soldiers took the remnants from Learoyd and went over them in their own fashion. Mulvaney stayed in hospital, and grinned from the balcony when Ortheris called him a shirker and other worse names.
‘By the grace av God we’ll brew men av them yet,’ Terence said one day. ‘Be vartuous an’ parsevere, me son. There’s the makin’s av colonels in that mob if we only go deep enough — wid a belt.’
‘We!’ Ortheris replied, dancing with rage. ‘I just love you and your “we’s.” ‘Ere’s B Company drillin’ like a drunk Militia reg’ment.’
‘So I’ve been officially acquent,’ was the answer from on high; ‘but I’m too sick this tide to make certain.’
‘An’ you, you fat H’irishman, sniftin’ an’ shirkin’ up there among the arrerroot an the sago!’
‘An’ the port wine — you’ve forgot the port wine, Orth’ris: ’Tis none so bad.’ Terence smacked his lips provokingly.
‘And we’re wore off’ our feet with these ’ere — kangaroos. Come out o’ that, an’ earn your pay. Come on down outer that, an’ do somethin’, ‘stead o’ grinnin’ up there like a Jew monkey, you frowsy —‘eaded Fenian!’
‘When I’m better av my various complaints I’ll have a little private talkin’ wid you. In the meanwhile — duck!’
Terence flung an empty medicine bottle at Ortheris’s head and dropped into a long chair, and Ortheris came to tell me his opinion of Mulvaney three times over — each time entirely varying all the words.
‘There’ll be a smash one o’ these days,’ he concluded. ‘Well, it’s none o’ my fault, but it’s ‘ard on B Company.’
It was very hard on B Company, for twenty seasoned men cannot push twice that number of fools into their places and keep their own places at the same time. The recruits should have been more evenly distributed through the regiment, but it seemed good to the Colonel to mass them in a company where there was a fair proportion of old soldiers. He found his reward early one morning when the battalion was advancing by companies in echelon from the right. The order was given to form company squares, which are compact little bricks of men very unpleasant for a line of charging cavalry to deal with. B Company was on the left flank, and had ample time to know what was going on. For that reason, presumably, it gathered itself into a thing like a decayed aloe-clump, the bayonets pointing anywhere in general and nowhere in particular; and in that clump, roundel, or mob, it stayed till the dust had gone down and the Colonel could see and speak. He did both, and the speaking part was admitted by the regiment to be the finest thing that the ‘old man’ had ever risen to since one delightful day at a sham-fight, when a cavalry division had occasion to walk over his line of skirmishers. He said, almost weeping, that he had given no order for rallying groups, and that he preferred to see a little dressing among the men occasionally. He then apologised for having mistaken B Company for men. He said that they were but weak little children, and that since he could not offer them each a perambulator and a nursemaid (this may sound comic to read, but B Company heard it by word of mouth and winced) perhaps the best thing for them to do would be to go back to squad-drill. To that end he proposed sending them, out of their turn, to garrison duty in Fort Amara, five miles away — D Company were next for this detestable duty and nearly cheered the Colonel. There he devoutly hoped that their own subalterns would drill them to death, as they were of no use in their present life.
It was an exceedingly painful scene, and I made haste to be near B Company barracks when parade was dismissed and the men were free to talk. There was no talking at first, because each old soldier took a new draft and kicked him very severely. The non-commissioned officers had neither eyes nor ears for these accidents. They left the barracks to themselves, and Ortheris improved the occasion by a speech. I did not hear that speech, but fragments of it were quoted for weeks afterwards. It covered the birth, parentage, and education of every man in the company by name: it gave a complete account of Fort Amara from a sanitary and social point of view; and it wound up with an abstract of the whole duty of a soldier, each recruit his use in life, and Ortheris’s views on the use and fate of the recruits of B Company.
‘You can’t drill, you can’t walk, you can’t shoot — you — you awful rookies! Wot’s the good of you? You eats and you sleeps, and you eats, and you goes to the doctor for medicine when your innards is out o’ order for all the world as if you was bloomin’ generals. An’ now you’ve topped it all, you bats’-eyed beggars, with getting us druv out to that stinkin’ Fort ‘Ammerer. We’ll fort you when we get out there; yes, an’ we’ll ‘ammer you too. Don’t you think you’ve come into the H’army to drink Heno, an’ club your comp’ny, an’ lie on your cots an’ scratch your fat heads. You can do that at ‘ome sellin’ matches, which is all you’re fit for, you keb-huntin’, penny-toy, bootlace, baggage-tout, ‘orse-‘oldin’, sandwich-backed se-werssl, you.’ I’ve spoke you as fair as I know ‘ow, and you give good ‘eed, ‘cause if Mulvaney stops skrimshanking — gets out o’ ‘orspital — when we’re in the Fort, I lay your lives will be trouble to you.’
That was Ortheris’s peroration, and it caused B Company to be christened the Boot-black Brigade. With this disgrace on their slack shoulders they went to garrison duty at Fort Amara with their officers, who were under instructions to twist their little tails. The army, unlike every other profession, cannot be taught through shilling books. First a man must suffer, then he must learn his work, and the self-respect that that knowledge brings. The learning is hard, in a land where the army is not a red thing that walks down the street to be looked at, but a living tramping reality that may be needed at the shortest notice, when there is no time to say, ‘Hadn’t you better?’ and ‘Won’t you please?’
The company officers divided themselves into three. When Brander the captain was wearied, he gave over to Maydew, and when Maydew was hoarse he ordered the junior subaltern Ouless to bucket the men through squad and company drill, till Brander could go on again. Out of parade hours the old soldiers spoke to the recruits as old soldiers will, and between the four forces at work on them, the new draft began to stand on their feet and feel that they belonged to a good and honourable service. This was proved by their once or twice resenting Ortheris’s technical lectures.
‘Drop it now, lad,’ said Learoyd, coming to the rescue. ‘Th’ pups are biting back. They’re none so rotten as we looked for.’
‘Ho! Yes. You think yourself soldiers now, ‘cause you don’t fall over each other on p’rade, don’t you? You think ‘cause the dirt don’t cake off you week’s end to week’s end that you’re clean men. You think ‘cause you can fire your rifle without more nor shuttin’ both eyes, you’re something to fight, don’t you? You’ll know later on,’ said Ortheris to the barrack-room generally. ‘Not but what you’re a little better than you was,’ he added, with a gracious wave of his cutty.
It was in this transition-stage that I came across the new draft once more. Their officers, in the zeal of youth forgetting that the old soldiers who stiffened the sections must suffer equally with the raw material under hammering, had made all a little stale and unhandy with continuous drill in the square, instead of marching the men into the open and supplying them with skirmishing drill. The month of garrison-duty in the Fort was nearly at an end, and B Company were quite fit for a self-respecting regiment to drill with. They had no style or spring — that would come in time — but so far as they went they were passable. I met Maydew one day and inquired after their health. He told me that young Ouless was putting a polish on a half-company of them in the great square by the east bastion of the Fort that afternoon. Because the day was Saturday I went off to taste the full beauty of leisure in watching another man hard at work.
The fat forty-pound muzzle-loaders on the east bastion made a very comfortable resting-place. You could sprawl full length on the iron warmed by the afternoon sun to blood heat, and command an easy view of the parade-ground which lay between the powder-magazine and the curtain of the bastion.
I saw a half-company called over and told off for drill, saw Ouless come from his quarters, tugging at his gloves, and heard the first ‘Shun! that locks the ranks and shows that work has begun. Then I went off on my own thoughts; the squeaking of the boots and the rattle of the rifles making a good accompaniment, and the line of red coats and black trousers a suitable back-ground to them all. They concerned the formation of a territorial army for India — an army of specially paid men enlisted for twelve years’ service in Her Majesty’s Indian possessions, with the option of extending on medical certificates for another five and the certainty of a pension at the end. They would be such an army as the world had never seen — one hundred thousand trained men drawing annually five, no, fifteen thousand men from England, making India their home, and allowed to marry in reason. Yes, I thought, watching the line shift to and fro, break and re-form, we would buy back Cashmere from the drunken imbecile who was turning it into a hell, and there we would plant our much-married regiments — the men who had served ten years of their time — and there they should breed us white soldiers, and perhaps a second fighting-line of Eurasians. At all events Cashmere was the only place in India that the Englishman could colonise, and if we had foothold there we could, . . Oh, it was a beautiful dream! I left that territorial army swelled to a quarter of a million men far behind, swept on as far as an independent India, hiring warships from the mother-country, guarding Aden on the one side and Singapore on the other, paying interest on her loans with beautiful regularity, but borrowing no men from beyond her own borders — a colonised, manufacturing India with a permanent surplus and her own flag. I had just installed myself as Viceroy, and by virtue of my office had shipped four million sturdy thrifty natives to the Malayan Archipelago, where labour is always wanted and the Chinese pour in too quickly, when I became aware that things were not going smoothly with the half-company. There was a great deal too much shuffling and shifting and ‘as you wereing.’ The non-commissioned officers were snapping at the men, and I fancied Ouless backed one of his orders with an oath. He was in no position to do this, because he was a junior who had not yet learned to pitch his word of command in the same key twice running. Sometimes he squeaked, and sometimes he grunted; and a clear full voice with a ring in it has more to do with drill than people think. He was nervous both on parade and in mess, because he was unproven and knew it. One of his majors had said in his hearing, ‘Ouless has a skin or two to slough yet, and he hasn’t the sense to be aware of it.’ That remark had staved in Ouless’s mind and caused him to think about himself in little things, which is not the best training for a young man. He tried to be cordial at mess, and became overeffusive. Then he tried to stand on his dignity, and appeared sulky and boorish. He was only hunting for the just medium and the proper note, and had found neither because he had never faced himself in a big thing. With his men he was as ill at ease as he was with his mess, and his voice betrayed him. I heard two orders and then:—‘Sergeant, what is that rear-rank man doing, damn him?’ That was sufficiently bad. A company officer ought not to ask sergeants for information. He commands, and commands are not held by syndicates.
It was too dusty to see the drill accurately, but I could hear the excited little voice pitching from octave to octave, and the uneasy ripple of badgered or bad-tempered files running down the ranks. Ouless had come on parade as sick of his duty as were the men of theirs. The hot sun had told on everybody’s temper, but most of all on the youngest man’s. He had evidently lost his self-control, and not possessing the nerve or the knowledge to break off till he had recovered it again, was making bad worse by ill-language.
The men shifted their ground and came close under the gun I was lying on. They were wheeling quarter-right and they did it very badly, in the natural hope of hearing Ouless swear again. He could have taught them nothing new, but they enjoyed the exhibition. Instead of swearing Ouless lost his head completely, and struck out nervously at the wheeling flank-man with a little Malacca riding-cane that he held in his hand for a pointer. The cane was topped with thin silver over lacquer, and the silver had worn through in one place, leaving a triangular flap sticking up. I had just time to see that Ouless had thrown away his commission by striking a soldier, when I heard the rip of cloth and a piece of gray shirt showed under the torn scarlet on the man’s shoulder. It had been the merest nervous flick of an exasperated boy, but quite enough to forfeit his commission, since it had been dealt in anger to a volunteer and no pressed man, who could not under the rules of the service reply. The effect of it, thanks to the natural depravity of things, was as though Ouless had cut the man’s coat off his back. Knowing the new draft by reputation, I was fairly certain that every one of them would swear with many oaths that Ouless had actually thrashed the man. In that case Ouless would do well to pack his trunk. His career as a servant of the Queen in any capacity was ended. The wheel continued, and the men halted and dressed immediately opposite my resting-place. Ouless’s face was perfectly bloodless. The flanking man was a dark red, and I could see his lips moving in wicked words. He was Ortheris! After seven years’ service and three medals, he had been struck by a boy younger than himself! Further, he was my friend and a good man, a proved man, and an Englishman. The shame of the thing made me as hot as it made Ouless cold, and if Ortheris had slipped in a cartridge and cleared the account at once I should have rejoiced. The fact that Ortheris, of all men, had been struck, proved, that the boy could not have known whom he was hitting; but he should have remembered that he was no longer a boy. And then I was sorry for him, and then I was angry again, and Ortheris stared in front of him and grew redder and redder.
The drill halted for a moment. No one knew why, for not three men could have seen the insult, the wheel being end-on to Ouless at the time. Then, led, I conceived, by the hand of Fate, Brander, the captain, crossed the drill-ground, and his eye was caught by not more than a square foot of gray shirt over a shoulder-blade that should have been covered by well-fitting tunic.
‘Heavens and earth!’ he said, crossing in three strides. ‘Do you let your men come on parade in rags, sir? What’s that scarecrow doing here? Fall out, that flank-man. What do you mean by — You, Ortheris! of all men. What the deuce do you mean?’
‘Beg y’ pardon, sir,’ said Ortheris. ‘I scratched it against the guard-gate running up to parade.’
‘Scratched it! Ripped it up, you mean. It’s half off your back.’
‘It was a little tear at first, sir, but in portin’ arms it got stretched, sir, an’— an’ I can’t look be’ind me. I felt it givin’, sir.’
‘Hm! ‘ said Brander. ‘I should think you did feel it give. I thought it was one of the new draft. You’ve a good pair of shoulders. Go on!’
He turned to go. Ouless stepped after him, very white, and said something in a low voice.
‘Hey, what? What? Ortheris,’ the voice dropped. I saw Ortheris salute, say something, and stand at attention.
‘Dismiss,’ said Brander curtly. The men were dismissed. ‘I can’t make this out. You say —?’ he nodded at Ouless, who said something again. Ortheris stood still, the torn flap of his tunic falling nearly to his waist-belt. He had, as Brander said, a good pair of shoulders, and prided himself on the fit of his tunic.
‘Beg y’ pardon, sir,’ I heard him say, ‘but I think Lieutenant Ouless has been in the sun too long. He don’t quite remember things, sir. I come on p’rade with a bit of a rip, and it spread, sir, through portin’ arms, as I ‘ave said, sir.’
Brander looked from one face to the other and I suppose drew his own conclusions, for he told Ortheris to go with the other men who were flocking back to barracks. Then he spoke to Ouless and went away, leaving the boy in the middle of the parade-ground fumbling with his sword-knot.
He looked up, saw me lying on the gun, and came to me biting the back of his gloved forefinger, so completely thrown off his balance that he had not sense enough to keep his trouble to himself.
‘I say, you saw that, I suppose?’ He jerked his head back to the square, where the dust left by the departing men was settling down in white circles.
‘I did,’ I answered, for I was not feeling polite.
‘What the devil ought I to do?’ He bit his finger again. ‘I told Brander what I had done. I hit him.’
‘I’m perfectly aware of that,’ I said, ‘and I don’t suppose Ortheris has forgotten it already.’
‘Ye — es; but I’m dashed if I know what I ought to do. Exchange into another company, I suppose. I can’t ask the man to exchange, I suppose. Hey?’
The suggestion showed the glimmerings of proper sense, but he should not have come to me or any one else for help. It was his own affair, and I told him so. He seemed unconvinced, and began to talk of the possibilities of being cashiered. At this point the spirit moved me, on behalf of the unavenged Ortheris, to paint him a beautiful picture of his insignificance in the scheme of creation. He had a papa and a mamma seven thousand miles away, and perhaps some friends. They would feel his disgrace, but no one else would care a, penny. He would be only Lieutenant Ouless of the Old Regiment dismissed the Queen’s service for conduct unbecoming an officer and a gentleman. The Commander-inChief, who would confirm the orders of the court-martial, would not know who he was; his mess would not speak of him; he would return to Bombay, if he had money enough to go home, more alone than when he had come out. Finally — I rounded the sketch with precision — he was only one tiny dab of red in the vast gray field of the Indian Empire. He must work this crisis out alone, and no one could help him, and no one cared —(this was untrue, because I cared immensely; he had spoken the truth to Brander on the spot)— whether he pulled through it or did not pull through it. At last his face set and his figure stiffened.
‘Thanks, that’s quite enough. I don’t want to hear any more,’ he said in a dry grating voice, and went to his own quarters.
Brander spoke to me afterwards and asked me some absurd question — whether I had seen Ouless cut the coat off Ortheris’s back. I knew that jagged sliver of silver would do its work well, but I contrived to impress on Brander the completeness, the wonderful completeness, of my disassociation from that drill. I began to tell him all about my dreams for the new territorial army in India, and he left me.
I could not see Ortheris for some days, but I learnt that when he returned to his fellows he had told the story of the blow in vivid language. Samuelson, the Jew, then asserted that it was not good enough to live in a regiment where you were drilled off your feet and knocked about like a dog. The remark was a perfectly innocent one, and exactly tallied with Ortheris’s expressed opinions. Yet Ortheris had called Samuelson an unmentionable Jew, had accused him of kicking women on the head in London, and howling under the cat, had hustled him, as a bantam hustles a barn-door cock, from one end of the barrack-room to the other, and finally had heaved every single article of Samuelson’s valise and bedding-roll into the verandah and the outer dirt, kicking Samuelson every time that the bewildered creature stooped to pick anything up. My informant could not account for this inconsistency, but it seemed to me that Ortheris was working off his temper.
Mulvaney had heard the story in hospital. First his face clouded, then he spat, and then laughed. I suggested that he had better return to active duty, but he saw it in another light, and told me that Ortheris was quite capable of looking after himself and his own affairs. ‘An’ if I did come out,’ said Terence, ‘like as not I would be catchin’ young Ouless by the scruff av his trousies an’ makin’ an example av him before the men. Whin Dinah came back I would be under court-martial, an’ all for the sake av a little bit av a bhoy that’ll make an orf’cer yet. What’s he goin’ to do, sorr, do ye know?’
‘Which?’ said I.
‘Ouless, av course. I’ve no fear for the man. Begad, tho’, if ut had come to me — but ut could not have so come — I’d ha’ made him cut his wisdom-teeth on his own sword-hilt.’
‘I don’t think he knows himself what he means to do,’ I said.
‘I should not wonder,’ said Terence. ‘There’s a dale av thinkin’ before a young man whin he’s done wrong an’ knows ut, an’ is studyin’ how to put ut right. Give the word from me to our little man there, that if he had ha’ told on his shuperior orf’cer I’d ha’ come out to Fort Amara to kick him into the Fort ditch, an’ that’s a forty-fut drop.’
Ortheris was not in good condition to talk to. He wandered up and down with Learoyd brooding, so far as I could see, over his lost honour, and using, as I could hear, incendiary language. Learoyd would nod and spit and smoke and nod again, and he must have been a great comfort to Ortheris — almost as great a comfort as Samuelson, whom Ortheris bullied disgracefully. If the Jew opened his mouth in the most casual remark Ortheris would plunge down it with all arms and accoutrements, while the barrack-room stared and wondered.
Ouless had retired into himself to meditate. I saw him now and again, and he avoided me because I had witnessed his shame and spoken my mind on it. He seemed dull and moody, and found his half-company anything but pleasant to drill. The men did their work and gave him very little trouble, but just when they should have been feeling their feet, and showing that they felt them by spring and swing and snap, the elasticity died out, and it was only drilling with war-game blocks. There is a beautiful little ripple in a well-made line of men, exactly like the play of a perfectly-tempered sword. Ouless’s half-company moved as a broom-stick moves, and would have broken as easily.
I was speculating whether Ouless had sent money to Ortheris, which would have been bad, or had apologised to him in private, which would have been worse, or had decided to let the whole affair slide, which would have been worst of all, when orders came to me to leave the station for a while. I had not spoken directly to Ortheris, for his honour was not my honour, and he was its only guardian, and he would not say anything except bad words.
I went away, and from time to time thought a great deal of that subaltern and that private in Fort Amara, and wondered what would be the upshot of everything.
When I returned it was early spring. B Company had been shifted from the Fort to regular duty in cantonments, the roses were getting ready to bud on the Mall, and the regiment, which had been at a camp of exercise among other things, was going through its spring musketry-course under an adjutant who had a notion that its shooting average was low. He had stirred up the company officers and they had bought extra ammunition for their men — the Government allowance is just sufficient to foul the rifling — and E Company, which counted many marksmen, was vapouring and offering to challenge all the other companies, and the third-class shots were very sorry that they had ever been born, and all the subalterns were a rich ripe saddle-colour from sitting at the butts six and eight hours a day.
I went off to the butts after breakfast very full of curiosity to see how the new draft had come forward. Ouless was there with his men by the bald hillock that marks the six hundred yards’ range, and the men were in gray-green khaki, that shows the best points of a soldier and shades off into every background he may stand against. Before I was in hearing distance I could see, as they sprawled on the dusty grass, or stood up and shook themselves, that they were men made over again — wearing their helmets with the cock of self-possession, swinging easily, and jumping to the word of command. Coming nearer, I heard Ouless whistling Ballyhooley between his teeth as he looked down the range with his binoculars, and the back of Lieutenant Ouless was the back of a free man and an officer. He nodded as I came up, and I heard him fling an order to a non-commissioned officer in a sure and certain voice. The flag ran up from the target, and Ortheris threw himself down on his stomach to put in his ten shots. He winked at me over the breech-block as he settled himself, with the air of a man who has to go through tricks for the benefit of children.
‘Watch, you men,’ said Ouless to the squad behind. ‘He’s half your weight, Brannigan, but he isn’t afraid of his rifle.’
Ortheris had his little affectations and pet ways as the rest of us have. He weighed his rifle, gave it a little kick-up, cuddled down again, and fired across the ground that was beginning to dance in the sun-heat.
‘Miss!’ said a man behind.
‘Too much bloomin’ background in front,’ Ortheris muttered.
‘I should allow two feet for refraction,’ said Ouless.
Ortheris fired again, made his outer, crept in, found the bull and stayed there; the non-commissioned officer pricking off the shots.
‘Can’t make out ‘ow I missed that first,’ he said, rising, and stepping back to my side, as Learoyd took his place.
‘Is it company practice?’ I asked.
‘No. Only just knockin’ about. Ouless, ‘e’s givin’ ten rupees for second-class shots. I’m outer it, of course, but I come on to show ’em the proper style o’ doin’ things. Jock looks like a sea-lion at the Brighton Aquarium sprawlin’ an’ crawlin’ down there, don’t ‘e? Gawd, what a butt this end of ’im would make.’
‘B Company has come up very well,’ I said.
‘They ‘ad to. They’re none so dusty now, are they? Samuelson even, ‘e can shoot sometimes. We’re gettin’ on as well as can be expected, thank you.’
‘How do you get on with —?’
‘Oh, ’im! First-rate! Theres nothin’ wrong with ’im.’
‘Was it all settled then?’
‘‘Asn’t Terence told you? I should say it was. ‘E’s a gentleman, ‘e is.’
‘Let’s hear,’ I said.
Ortheris twinkled all over, tucked his rifle across his knees and repeated, ‘‘E’s a gentleman. ‘E’s an officer too. You saw all that mess in Fort ‘Ammerer. ‘Twasn’t none o’ my fault, as you can guess. Only some goat in the drill judged it was be’aviour or something to play the fool on p’rade. That’s why we drilled so bad. When ‘e ‘it me, I was so took aback I couldn’t do nothing, an’ when I wished for to knock ’im down the wheel ‘ad gone on, an’ I was facin’ you there lyin’ on the guns. After the captain had come up an’ was raggin’ me about my tunic bein’ tore, I saw the young beggar’s eye, an’ ‘fore I could ‘elp myself I begun to lie like a good ’un. You ‘eard that? It was quite instinkive, but, my! I was in a lather. Then he said to the captain, “I struck ’im!” sez ‘e, an’ I ‘eard Brander whistle, an’ then I come out with a new set o’ lies all about portin’ arms an’ ‘ow the rip growed, same as you ‘eard. I done that too before I knew where I was. Then I give Samuelson what-for in barricks when he was dismissed. You should ha’ seen ‘is kit by the time I’d finished with it. It was all over the bloomin’ Fort! Then me an’ Jock went off to Mulvaney in ‘orspital, five-mile walk, an’ I was hoppin’ mad. Ouless, ‘e knowed it was court-martial for me if I ‘it ’im back —‘e must ha’ knowed. Well, I sez to Terence, whisperin’ under the ‘orspital balcony —“Terence,” sez I, “what in ‘ell am I to do?” I told ’im all about the row same as you saw. Terence ‘e whistles like a bloomin’ old bullfinch up there in ‘orspital, an’ ‘e sez, “You ain’t to blame,” sez ‘e. “‘Strewth,” sez I, “d’you suppose I’ve come ’ere five mile in the sun to take blame?” I sez. “I want that young beggar’s hide took off. I ain’t a bloomin’ conscrip’,” I sez. “I’m a private servin’ of the Queen, an’ as good a man as ‘e is,” I sez, “for all ‘is commission an’ ‘is airs an’ ‘is money,” sez I’
‘What a fool you were,’ I interrupted. Ortheris, being neither a menial nor an American, but a free man, had no excuse for yelping.
‘That’s exactly what Terence said. I wonder you set it the same way so pat if ‘e ‘asn’t been talkin’ to you. ‘E sez to me —“You ought to ‘ave more sense,” ‘e sez, “at your time of life. What differ do it make to you,” ‘e sez, “whether ‘e ‘as a commission or no commission? That’s none o’ your affair. It’s between man an’ man,” ‘e sez, “if ‘e ‘eld a general’s commission. Moreover,” ‘e sez, “you don’t look ‘andsome ‘oppin’ about on your ‘ind legs like that. Take him away, Jock.” Then ‘e went inside, an’ that’s all I got outer Terence. Jock, ‘e sez as slow as a march in slow time — “Stanley,” ‘e sez, “that young beggar didn’t go for to ‘it you.” “I don’t give a damn whether ‘e did or ‘e didn’t. ‘It me ‘e did,” I sez. “Then you’ve only got to report to Brander,” sez Jock. “What d’yer take me for?” I sez, as I was so mad I nearly ‘it Jock. An’ he got me by the neck an’ shoved my ‘ead into a bucket o’ water in the cook-’ouse an’ then we went back to the Fort, an’ I give Samuelson a little more trouble with ‘is kit. ‘E sez to me, “I haven’t been strook without ‘ittin’ back.” “Well, you’re goin’ to be now,” I sez, an’ I give ’im one or two for ‘isself, an’ arxed ’im very polite to ‘it back, but he didn’t. I’d ha’ killed ’im if ‘e ‘ad. That done me a lot o’ good.
‘Ouless ‘e didn’t make no show for some days — not till after you was gone; an’ I was feelin’ sick an’ miserable, an’ didn’t know what I wanted, ‘cept to black his little eyes good. I ‘oped ‘e might send me some money for my tunic. Then I’d ha’ had it out with him on p’rade and took my chance. Terence was in ‘orspital still, you see, an’ ‘e wouldn’t give me no advice.
‘The day after you left, Ouless come across me carrying a bucket on fatigue, an’ ‘e sez to me very quietly, “Ortheris, you’ve got to come out shootin’ with me,” ‘e sez. I felt like to bunging the bucket in ‘is eye, but I didn’t. I got ready to go instead. Oh, ‘es a gentleman! We went out together, neither sayin’ nothin’ to the other till we was well out into the jungle beyond the river with ‘igh grass all round — pretty near that place where I went off my ‘ead with you. Then ‘e puts his gun down an’ sez very quietly: “Ortheris, I strook you on p’rade,” ‘e sez. “Yes, sir,” sez I, “you did.” “I’ve been studying it out by myself,” ‘e sez. “Oh, you ‘ave, ‘ave you?” sez I to myself, “an’ a nice time you’ve been about it, you bun-faced little beggar.” “Yes, sir,” sez I. “What made you screen me?” ‘e sez. “I don’t know,” I sez, an’ no more I did, nor do. “I can’t ask you to exchange,” ‘e sez. “An’ I don’t want to exchange myself,” sez ‘e. “What’s comin’ now?” I thinks to myself. “Yes, sir,” sez I. He looks round at the ‘igh grass all about, an’ ‘e sez to himself more than to me — “I’ve got to go through it alone, by myself!” ‘E looked so queer for a minute that, s’elp me, I thought the little beggar was going to pray. Then he turned round again an’ ‘e sez, “What do you think yourself? ‘e sez. “I don’t quite see what you mean, sir,” I sez. “What would you like?” ‘e sez. An’ I thought for a minute ‘e was goin’ to give me money, but ‘e run ‘is ‘and up to the top-button of ‘is shootin’ coat an’ loosed it. “Thank you, sir,” I sez. “I’d like that very well,” I sez, an’ both our coats was off an’ put down.’
‘Hooray!’ I shouted incautiously.
‘Don’t make a noise on the butts,’ said Ouless from the shooting-place. ‘It puts the men off.’
I apologised, and Ortheris went on.
‘Our coats was off, an’ ‘e sez, “Are you ready?” sez ‘e. “Come on then.” I come on, a bit uncertain at first, but he took me one under the chin that warmed me up. I wanted to mark the little beggar an’ I hit high, but he went an’ jabbed me over the heart like a good one. He wasn’t so strong as me, but he knew more, an’ in about two minutes I calls “Time.” ‘E steps back — it was in-fightin’ then: “Come on when you’re ready,” ‘e sez; and when I had my wind I come on again, an’ I got ’im one on the nose that painted ‘is little aristocratic white shirt for ’im. That fetched ’im, an’ I knew it quicker nor light. He come all round me, close-fightin’, goin’ steady for my heart. I held on all I could an’ split ‘is ear, but then I began to hiccup, an’ the game was up. I come in to feel if I could throw ’im, an’ ‘e got me one on the mouth that downed me an’— look ’ere!’
Ortheris raised the left corner of his upper lip. An eye-tooth was wanting.
‘‘E stood over me an’ ‘e sez, “Have you ‘ad enough?” ‘e sez. “Thank you, I ‘ave,” sez I. He took my ‘and an’ pulled me up, an’ I was pretty shook. “Now,” ‘e sez, “I’ll apologise for ‘ittin’ you. It was all my fault,” ‘e sez, “an’ it wasn’t meant for you.” “I knowed that, sir,” I sez, “an’ there’s no need for no apology.” “Then it’s an accident,” ‘e sez; “an’ you must let me pay for the coat; else it’ll be stopped out o’ your pay.” I wouldn’t ha’ took the money before, but I did then. ‘E give me ten rupees — enough to pay for a coat twice over, ‘an we went down to the river to wash our faces, which was well marked. His was special. Then he sez to himself, sputterin’ the water out of ‘is mouth, “I wonder if I done right?” ‘e sez. “Yes, sir,” sez I; “there’s no fear about that.” “It’s all well for you,” ‘e sez, “but what about the comp’ny?” “Beggin’ your pardon, sir,” I sez, “I don’t think the comp’ny will give no trouble.” Then we went shootin’, an’ when we come back I was feelin’ as chirpy as a cricket, an’ I took an’ rolled Samuelson up an’ down the verandah, an’ give out to the comp’ny that the difficulty between me an’ Lieutenant Ouless was satisfactory put a stop to. I told Jock, o’ course, an’ Terence. Jock didn’t say nothing, but Terence ‘e sez: “You’re a pair, you two. An’, begad, I don’t know which was the better man.” There ain’t nothin’ wrong with Ouless. ‘E’s a gentleman all over, an’ ‘e’s come on as much as B Comp’ny. I lay ‘e’d lose ‘is commission, tho’, if it come out that ‘e’d been fightin’ with a private. Ho! ho! Fightin’ all an afternoon with a bloomin’ private like me! What do you think?” he added, brushing the breech of his rifle.
‘I think what the umpires said at the sham fight; both sides deserve great credit. But I wish you’d tell me what made you save him in the first place.’
‘I was pretty sure that ‘e ‘adn’t meant it for me, though that wouldn’t ha’ made no difference if ‘e’d been copped for it. An’ ‘e was that young too that it wouldn’t ha’ been fair. Besides, if I had ha’ done that I’d ha’ missed the fight, and I’d ha’ felt bad all my time. Don’t you see it that way, sir.’
‘It was your right to get him cashiered if you chose,’ I insisted.
‘My right!’ Ortheris answered with deep scorn. ‘My right! I ain’t a recruity to go whinin’ about my rights to this an’ my rights to that, just as if I couldn’t look after myself. My rights! ‘Strewth A’mighty! I’m a man.’
The last squad were finishing their shots in a storm of low-voiced chaff. Ouless withdrew to a little distance in order to leave the men at ease, and I saw his face in the full sunlight for a moment, before he hitched up his sword, got his men together, and marched them back to barracks. It was all right. The boy was proven.
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:10