This story was first published in the Strand Magazine and the New York Sun in May 1892. Kipling also has a poem of the same title first printed in the New York Sun on 13 May 1893, on a different subject.
This story is collected in:
- Many Inventions, 1893, page 182,
- Scribner’s Edition, Volume III, page 454
- Sussex Edition, Volume V, page 275
- Burwash Edition, Volume V
A squadron of cavalry are out on a night mission to arrest some troublesome Afghan tribesmen, whose village is in a well defended position high in the mountains. In the dark they hear the sounds of what they think is another mounted force all around them, and find themselves stumbling over little piles of stones, as in a graveyard. They disturb the watchmen in the village above, who are clearly very frightened. There is a flash of lightning, which reveals all for a moment.There is a challenge from above, and one of the native troopers gives a loud cry for mercy, which disturbs the watchmen even more.
The squadron makes its way up to the village, as planned, without resistance, and captures the delinquent tribesmen. But they find that they have just passed through the scene of a massacre thirty years before, when – during the ‘Indian Mutiny’ – a native regiment, fleeing from the British into the hills, had been slaughtered by these very tribesmen. The ‘cry for mercy’ by a trooper who knew the story had convinced the watchmen that the ghosts of their victims were below them, coming up the hill.
The story told in this tale was a tradition left over from the mutiny and uprising of 1857 in India, arising from John Nicholson’s punishment of the mutinous 55th Native Infantry. Nicholson was the young British soldier and administrator (revered by Anglo-Indians) who planned and led the storming of Delhi in 1857 and died of wounds shortly afterward, aged 34. In the 14 May 1887 Civil and Military Gazette, Kipling published the first part of an impressionistic two-part piece titled “In the Year ’57”, having pored over the “Proceedings of the Government of the Punjab” for 1857.
The main story is introduced:
…but the file only deals with July—that is to say after Nicholson had driven the 55th Regiment of Native Infantry from Nowshera to Murdan and from Murdan to the hills of Swat, where Nature and man turned against and slew them—after the Mutiny had broken out at Jullundur, Ludhiana, and elsewhere, and after the mutineers held possession of Delhi.
A later passage reads: ‘Jemmadar Jellary Khan and Duffadar Ahmed Khan—let Cotton’s testimony in their favor be set down now, should not have their estates confiscated. I have deemed it expedient’ says the great head of the Peshawur Division ‘to save them from the ruin in which their regiment was involved.’ Does Jemadar Jellary Khan—he would only be sixty six years old—live still near Shahj Hanpore in the Bareilly district?.
We have here the germ of both “The Lost Legion” and perhaps of the old Subadar in Chapter III of Kim.
J M S Tompkins calls this both a ‘classic ghost story’ and ‘admirable’, though she believes “The Wish House”(Debits and Credits) written some thirty years later, to be ‘much finer and subtler’.
©Peter Havholm 2007 All rights reserved