Black Jack


(notes edited by John McGivering)


First published in the Soldiers Three volume of The Indian Railway Library in 1888, and collected in Soldiers Three and Other Stories in the same year.

The story

Many years before, as a private in the Black Tyrone, Mulvaney had found himself living in a barrack room with a group of bad characters. Their sergeant was hard on them, and they planned to get revenge on him, but Mulvaney would have nothing to do with the idea.

Then, when sleeping off a drinking session in the long grass, he overhears them plotting to shoot the sergeant with Mulvaney’s rifle, and put the blame on him. Back in the barrack-room, he finds that his rifle is loaded; he removes the bullet, leaves the charge, and tampers with the mechanism so that the weapon – a new design of Martini – will blow back when it is fired.

The plot goes ahead, the sergeant comes into the verandah, and the rifle is fired at him, but instead of killing him it blows back on the assassin, wounding him severely in the face. Later, the sergeant takes steps to draft the men from this barrack-room elsewhere. He is a womaniser, and Mulvaney – no mean womaniser himself – warns him against taking risks. He ignores the advice and is later shot by a jealous husband.

Early Indian editions contain this first paragraph which is usually omitted from later publications:

There is a writer called Mr. Robert Louis Stevenson, who makes most delicate inlay work in black and white, and files out to the fraction of a hair. He has written a story about a suicide club, wherein men gambled for Death because other amusements did not bite sufficiently. My friend Private Mulvaney knows nothing about Mr. Stevenson, but he once assisted informally at a meeting of almost such a club as that gentleman has described, and his words are true.

Stevenson (1850-1894) and Kipling corresponded but they did not manage to meet. ( Lycett pp. 235/6) The story in question is “The Suicide Club” (1874) collected in The Latter-Day Arabian Nights (1878) and The New Arabian Nights (1882) Kipling paid Stevenson the compliment of parodying some of his verses – “A Child’s Garden.”

Some critical comments

Alan Sandison (page 75, and note page 114) suggests that Kipling with, perhaps, Stephen Crane, who wrote The Red Badge of Courage etc., set a new style in military story-telling. He then quotes the review of Soldiers Three in the Spectator of 23 March 1889:

Here be no inanities of the Officers’ Mess, no apotheosis of the gilded and tawny-moustached dragoon, no languid and lisping lancer, no child-sweethearts, none, in fact, of the sentimental paraphernalia familiar to readers of modern military fiction.

Philip Mallett (page 38) regards this story as the best in the volume. However, T R Henn (page 30) confesses to a certain impatience with the Soldiers Three stories, commenting rather dismissively that: No doubt they and the [Barrack Room] Ballads served a useful purpose in drawing attention to the British soldier of the i890s… Henn does not care for Mulvany’s accent or dialogue (‘Irish people do not say these things’) but apart from that, approves of Kipling’s treatment of the soldiers and their activities, quoting KJ no.13 for April 1930.

See also Kipling’s poem “Tommy”, and the Civil and Military Gazette of 29 September, 1884, for an account of a somewhat similar incident and notes on others.

[J H McG]

©John McGivering 2005 All rights reserved