First published in the USA as “Honours Even” in Family Magazine, an Associated Newspapers Supplement for May 1911, and as “The Honours of War” in the Windsor Magazine for August the same year, headed by the verse “The Jester”. It is collected in A Diversity of Creatures (1917) and in the Sussex Edition Volume 9 page 107, the Burwash Edition Volume 9, and Scribner’s Edition Volume 26.
This story is a throwback to the days of Stalky & Co.. The narrator, here in his persona as ‘Beetle’, together with ‘Stalky’, now a Lieutenant-Colonel, are staying with ‘The Infant’, another old schoool-friend now retired from the army. ‘The Infant’ is approached by his nephew, a young officer, and his friend, both subalterns in a nearby regiment, who are in a serious scrape.
They have ‘ragged’ an unpopular fellow-officer, Mr Wontner, dragging him out of bed, wrecking his furniture, and making him drink a disgusting mixture of Worcester Sauce and punch. They now have him over in the garage, tied up in a sack, furious, and demanding redress. Wontner, whose father is a solicitor, is bent on making a public issue of his treatment, probably bringing down serious trouble from the military authorities upon his fellow-officers and their Colonel, an old friend of Stalky’s.
By a typically Stalky-like subterfuge, Wontner is released, comforted by an excellent meal with magnificent wines and mollified by courteous and somewhat deferential treatment from older men, which he is too full of self-importance to realise is something of a charade. He drops his intention of starting legal and other action, takes matters into his own hands, and revenges himself on the boys by a counter-rag in which he ties them up, dresses them in brightly coloured skirts and bonnets, and displays them in the Officers’ Mess. He has obtained ample revenge for his own treatment, and the regiment has been saved from an embarrassing public scandal.
Some loose ends are left dangling in the story without clarification. Most of these are mentioned in the Notes on the Text as they occur, but it would be small-minded to cavil at what must be an attempt by Kipling to recapture his youth. He was 46 in 1911 and may have begun to notice that the policemen looked young, a notorious sign of advancing years. He may also have wished to reassure himself (as well as Stalky) that the Army was as good as it ever had been, as he does in “The Horse Marines” (p. 324 line 24 onwards later in this volume) ‘…Same old game, same young beggars’.
The boot was on the other foot, incidentally, when in the 1880s some men attempted to “rag” Kipling in Lahore. Lord Birkenhead records (page 85) as reported by E. Kay Robinson, Kipling’s chief, Rudyard’s own response to a hilarious party bent on ‘ragging’ – i.e. wrecking – his rooms:
‘Kipling was out of his bed in an instant, and before the foremost of the intruders had mastered the geography of the room in the dark, he felt the cold barrel of a revolver at his temple.’
This jolly romp is beautifully encapsulated by Professor J I M Stewart (page 167) – who first glances at “A Friend’s Friend” (Plain Tales from the Hills) where the victim of the “rag” is never seen again:
…only here the victim is conceived of as capable of salvation. A subaltern who has had the misfortune to spend three years at one of the ancient universities (and who has therefore added intolerable conceit to a natural ill-breeding) has been ragged by his fellows in some approved Kipling fashion, and is caddish enough to propose making the incident an occasion of public scandal. Fortunately … Stalky … is around and persuades the aggrieved young man to retort with cunningly contrived physical outrage of his own. Having achieved this, the subaltern apologizes (sic) handsomely to his fellow officers for his previous unpleasing behaviour, and is then forgiven and received back into the favour of the mess.
J M S Tompkins examines this story in her Chapter 2, ‘Laughter’, (p. 34):
The farce here, though elaborate in its appliances, is less so in its movement, since it is man-made, and depends little on chance … The Demon of Irresponsibility has no part to play. In fact Stalky (now a Colonel) and his henchmen, are entirely responsible; they are playing for the careers of three young men, and the reputation of their regiment.
She also notes (p.131) that the story – written on the eve of the Great War, reassures Stalky as to the quality of the younger generation, who – although mainly well-behaved – turn out to be as reckless as he was in his young days. This is another instance in which we can probably regard the narrator as Kipling himself, despite the admonition of Dr Tompkins that we should not do so (page 256).
See also Boris Ford, reprinted in Elliot Gilbert (Ed.) (p. 59) taking the farces seriously, and obviously not enjoying them, with a particularly superior attitude to this and others in the same vein, where (p. 69) he concedes that practical jokes in the Stalky stories…
… can be accepted, if only with difficulty, because one fondly supposes that most things are possible with the adolescent; but Kipling soon abandons even this degree of plausibility, and one finds exactly the same conduct glorified in the Regimental Mess.
[J H McG]
©John McGivering 2008 All rights reserved