The Maltese Cat

Notes on the Text

These notes, by Alastair Wilson, are partly new, and partly based on the notes on this tale in the ORG. The page and line numbers below refer to the Macmillan (London) Standard Edition of The Day’s Work, as published and frequently reprinted between 1898 and 1950.

In horse terminology, “aged” has a specific meaning, of “more than 6 years old”. The words used to describe the colour of a horse are not taken from the artist’s palette, and American colors are not necessarily the same as English colours:

  • Grey is more white than grey. It can vary from a pale grey, through ‘dirty’ white, to a fairly pure white (but N.B. ‘cream’ is also a horse colour.) Grey horses are not born grey.
  • Brown is a very dark brown, with mane and tail the same colour as the body.
  • Bay is any shade of brown, but with black legs, mane and tail.
  • Mouse-coloured is more like a true grey.
  • Red is not a colour often met in English stables.

[Page 252, line 11] could only supply one pony for every other change This is slightly misleading, since it could be interpreted as meaning that the Skidars’ ponies went out for two successive chukkers, before their riders exchanged them for their next pony. Whereas, as becomes clear from the tale, each pony played for one chukker, then rested for two chukkers before going out again.

For ease of reference, a list of the Skidars’ ponies, their riders, and the chukkers in which they played, is set out below.

[Page 252, line 15] Upper India this would normally have meant all India from Delhi northwards (N.B. not New Delhi, which was laid out and built, adjacent to the old city of Delhi, after the date of this tale), but it is clear from page 253, line 28 that it included teams from garrisons as far south as Mhow in central India (now in the State of Madhya Pradesh), which is 500 miles south of Delhi) and also from Allahabad which is some 400 miles south-east of Delhi.

[Page 252, line 16] a thousand rupees each a rupee was then worth about one shilling and fourpence (1s. 4d – 6p.) Rs1000 would then have been worth £66 13s. 4d (£66.67). It is not easy to compare prices to 2005 prices (but see the note on the game of Polo). What can be said is that the Archangels ponies had cost two to three times what the Skidars’ ponies had cost.

[Page 252, lines 18 & 19] masters who belonged to a poor but honest native infantry regiment Firstly, the expression “poor but honest” should not be taken too literally. It is, originally, a quotation from All’s Well that Ends Well, by Shakespeare (“My friends were poor but honest”, Act I, scene iii, line 203), but it was later used, re-used and mis-used in a piece of doggerel verse, probably dating from the mid 19th century, which went something like:

She was poor but she was honest, victim of the squire’s whim.
First he loved her, then he left her, and she lost her honest name.

Since then it has been vulgarised many times and in many forms. But the phrase has passed into English usage for a person or persons who is, or are, virtuous but unremarkable. This is the usage here. (Cf also, Kipling’s poem “Poor Honest Men”, where the phrase is used ironically.)

See the note on ‘Skidars and Archangels’ for “native infantry regiment”. We are later told [Page 254, line 13] that the Skidars “came from the North”, and [Page 255, line 21] that they: “were what they call a Pioneer Regiment.” The following comprehensive note by Lieutenant Colonel Roger Ayers sets out their position in the Army hierarchy.

‘In the British army there had been pioneers since the beginning of the eighteenth century as small specialist groups of soldiers in infantry battalions. They were not part of the line and paraded behind the line with the band and drums (In the illustration of a battalion on parade in my notes on ‘Danny Deever’, the Pioneer Sgt and six pioneers are two paces in front of the band and drums). Their main role was to assist the battalion in movement by building or repairing bridges, improving roads and improvising defences, such as constructing a cheval de frise from felled trees. The Royal Engineers, earlier the Sappers and Miners, were primarily for building siege works – sapping – and blowing up defences – mining – but they were also responsible for major construction to assist the movement of an army.

‘In the H.E.I.C.’s army of the late 18thC, each of the three Presidencies had some form of Sappers and Miners but ‘pioneer work’ was done by local labourers. During the Mutiny, local labour was at best unreliable and frequently unobtainable, so pioneer units were formed from recruits from loyal areas, mainly in the Punjab, to fill the gap.

‘After the Mutiny, these units were brought into the Indian Army order of battle as infantry regiments but they also kept their Pioneer role, so they were a very valuable supplement to both the infantry and the engineers. At this time a Pioneer regiment would have had something like 8 British officers, 16 Native officers, a few British NCOs and some 600+ Native rank and file. Numbers varied over the years and between Presidencies. The British officers were infantry, the pioneering skills being covered by the British NCOs. They did not have the range of tools of a Sapper unit, just each man carrying an axe, pick or shovel along with his normal infantry kit.

‘In the Second Afghan War at the battle of Charasia in 1879, it was a charge by the 23rd Sikh Pioneers which finally caused the Afghans to break and Lord Roberts, on his march from Kabul to Kandahar in 1880, dispensed with his Sappers and Miners and relied on the 23rd Pioneers as one of the 4 infantry regiments in the 1st of his three brigades, to act as engineers when necessary. Such a unit was in no way inferior to other Native infantry and being formed from one of the proudest of the ‘Martial Races’ would have undoubtedly looked down on other infantry units.

‘The social distinction that Kipling makes is really between a British cavalry unit with a mess of some 30 officers, almost all of whom would have had private money, and the half-dozen British officers of a native infantry regiment living on their pay and probably in debt to the shroff (money lender). Mention of the Skidars being Pioneers was probably intended by Kipling to indicate that they were resourceful and Punjabis, that is, closer to the top of the heap rather than the bottom. ‘ [R.C.A.]

[Page 252, line 27] black silk nose not to be taken literally, but a horse’s nose is the softest part of its body.

[Page 252, line 28] neat-fitting boot Protective covering for the cannon bone and fetlock (the joint immediately above the hoof itself). Protection by boots or bandages is compulsory. Boots, which may be more properly likened to an old fashioned gentleman’s spat (they do not have a sole), are favoured as being specially designed for the adequate protection they undoubtedly provide which bandages do not. Today, most boots are made of rubber.

[Page 253, line 18] drags and dog carts A drag was a large kind of wagonette (and a wagonette, which looked rather like a superior farm-cart, was the late Victorian equivalent of today’s minibus: the Church outing would go for a picnic, all packed into two or three wagonettes). In England, in the first half of the 20th century, a drag more usually applied to a four-horse coach for four-in-hand driving: but there cannot have been many of those in India in the 1890s.
A dog-cart was a light vehicle, usually four-wheeled, drawn by one horse, with a box for one’s dog under the seat. It usually seated four, two facing forward, two facing backwards.

[Page 253, line 24] Biluchi from Baluchistan, an area of the Indian sub-continent now forming the western province of Pakistan. It has Iran on its western border, and Afghanistan on its northern border.

[Page 253, line 30] Arab of Arabian stock. The greater number of horses marketed as Arabs in Egypt and India come from upper Mesopotamia (now North-west Iraq) and Jordan, where horses from the original Arabian stock are bred under more favourable pasturage conditions. Arab breeding shows particularly in a ‘dished’ face, and a tail held cocked at all times.
Syrian Probably from Jordanian Arabs.
Barb A breed imported from Barbary, that part of North Africa comprising Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia and Tripolitania. The name is derived from the Berbers, the principal inhabitants.
country-bred Bred all over northern India.
Deccanee From the Deccan, the name given to the whole of India south of the River Nerbudda.

[Page 253, line 31] Waziri from Waziristan, an area inside the border of present-day Pakistan, west and south west of Peshawur. It remains semi-independent.
Kabuli From the neighbourhood of the capital of Afghanistan. In other of his works, Kipling calls them Cabulis (cf, Letters of Marque, letter XIV).

[Page 254, line 17] Abdul Rahman’s stable there was such an establishment in Bombay (Mumbai) which imported ponies of every kind, including local horses, but (the ORG continues) the writer of this note is not certain of the name. However, there are two other references, presumably non-fictional, in Letter XIV of Letters of Marque, where “the Englishman” (Kipling himself, in his reporter’s role) visits the stables of the Maharaja of Jodhpur, and refers to horses as having come from Abdul Rahman, so it may be assumed that there was such a stable, and that it was at Bombay.

[Page 254, line 19] Paikpattan Cup In those days there was some good racing in South India, in Bombay, Poona (Pune), etc., but this trophy is almost certainly fictitious.

[Page 254, line 28] goose-rumped half-breeds the part of the horse referred to is the croup, which extends from the loin to the root of the tail, a distance of about 18 inches (450 mm), depending on the horse’s size, in a line which should be flat or only very slightly curved. A high point for the root of the tail is characteristic of a thoroughbred: in a draught horse this part droops toward the tail. It is clear that the author was likening the ponies’ croups to a goose’s rump, which falls toward the tail in a pronounced curve, i.e., he was making it abundantly clear that they were no thoroughbreds.

[Page 255, line 6] tiffin a light mid-day meal.

[Page 255, line 8] saises (Hindustani). Native grooms, one to each pony as a rule.

[Page 255, line 18] half the native officers see Roger Ayers’ note above [Page 252, lines 18 & 19]. Colonel Ayers remarks: ‘I have since found references that indicate that it was not until the 1890s that the bagpipes became a popular – and locally made – instrument in the Punjab.’ This confirms the fact that the Skidars really did draw their recruits from the more ‘wild and woolly’ parts of the N.W. Frontier.

[Page 255, line 20] the big be-ribboned bagpipes this indicates that the Skidars recruited among the tribes from the mountainous regions in the NW Frontier Province, beyond the Punjab, in what is today Pakistan.

[Page 255, line 29] an impatient British cavalry band no visiting team would have brought its band with it, so this may be taken as the band of the cavalry regiment stationed at Umballa: also, as a corollary, that the Archangels were not stationed at Umballa. If that had been so, one might have expected something along the lines of “the Archangels’ band struck up …”.

[Page 255, line 30] ‘If you want to know the time, ask a p’leeceman’ a music hall song written about 1880 by E.W. Rogers. It continues:

Every member of the Force
Has a watch and chain of course.
If you want to know the time, ask a p’liceman.

Like so many music hall songs, the lyrics were banal in the extreme, though it is a good catchy tune – one which would have all the errand boys whistling. But it also illustrated a feature of life when very few people, other than the well-to-do, would carry a watch (and when wrist-watches were scarcely thought of). In the absence of a public clock, and when our policemen were more frequently seen on the beat than they are today, it was quite customary to find the nearest policeman to ask him what time it was.

[Page 256, line 4] blinkers flat pieces of leather, about four to five inches square, secured to the cheek-pieces of a horse’s bridle, on each side of its face alongside its eyes, so that it cannot look sideways, and concentrates on what is in front. By the 1953 Rules of Polo, blinkers are not permitted.

[Page 256, line 15] the Malta ground the polo ground of the United Services Sports Club at the Marsa, the nursery of many outstanding Navy players: all now (2005) gone. Navy polo effectively died at the start of World War II, though some was played in the 1950s (the late Earl Mountbatten was a great player and supporter).

[Page 256, line 16] flea-bitten not to be taken literally. The phrase applies to the colour of a horse which is grey, i.e. either white or light-grey with darker flecks.

[Page 256, line 25] polo-balls are indeed made from bamboo root, and by the International Rules may not exceed 3¼ inches (82.5 mm) in diameter, and in weight shall be between 4½ and 4¾ ounces (127.7 grams and 134.8 grams).

[Page 256, line 30] finest game in the world Among many who have said this of polo is the great C.B. Fry (1872-56), the Oxford Triple-Blue, of international status in athletics, cricket and association football. The Persian poet Firdausi (born A.D. 941) called it “the game of kings”.

[Page 257, line 14] loop of his stick over his wrist Formerly a thong, the loop is nowadays of webbing or cotton wick, attacked to the haft of the mallet (or stick) and adjusted securely round the player’s wrist to insure against loss during play.

[Page 257, line 29] fretty in this instance, fretful. See also the note in this Guide on “Young Men at the Manor” (Puck of Pook’s Hill, page 61, line 19) which explains that the word also has an heraldic meaning.

[Page 258, line 5] saw fit to play forward Number 3, the half-back, is the pivot of the team and is, say the authorities, the best position for the captain.

[Page 258, line 29] Kittiwynk stayed where she was for she knew the game it is to be assumed, and hoped, that this pony was under her rider’s control (ORG). As a horseman (of a sort) the compiler of these notes wouldn’t be too sure: the team of horse and rider does make use of the horse’s undoubted intelligence.

[Page 259, line 5] a goal in three minutes for three hits unless the account of the play is unduly condensed, it should have been much less than three minutes – more like 30 to 45 seconds, say a minute at the outside.

[Page 259, line 21] an ekka a carriage for hire.

[Page 260, line 14] shoved him aside a quite legitimate movement known as “riding-off”.

[Page 262, line 9] chargers – cavalry chargers! the horses ridden by cavalrymen were much larger than polo ponies. The heavy cavalry, dragoons and dragoon guards, had horses which were 16 hands or over (see the Household Cavalry today). Light cavalry, hussars and lancers, rode horses which were generally smaller, but again, usually over 15 hands, and so much bigger animals than polo ponies. When infantry officers appeared on parade mounted, the horse they rode would be referred to as a charger.

[Page 262, line 10] thirteen three hands understood – see the note on horse measurement in the introductory headnotes.

[Page 264, line 28] My word! an indication of Who’s Who’s supposed Australian blood: ‘My word’ was a favourite Australian exclamation of the period.

[Page 265, line 3] … came down like a wolf on the fold part of the first line of Lord Byron’s (1788-1824) The Destruction of Sennacharib, a piece of verse which featured in most books of English poetry studied in English schools.

[Page 265, line 18] took his stick in both hands … swiped at the ball in the air Every polo player has dreamed of this stroke.
Munipore (or Manipur) see the introductory note on the game of Polo. The suggestion has been made that the two-handed stroke was introduced by the riders of the small ponies usual in those parts, when the game returned to India. We wondered whether there was any rule about left-handed players. Probably not at that time, but the International Rules of Polo 1953, rule 4 (b) reads “No player shall play with his left-hand”. So presumably the two-handed stroke is now barred from the game also.

[Page 269, line 11] did you take anything at Tiffin? did you drink any alcohol at lunch?

[Page 270, line 18] collar-bone the clavicle, joining the breastbone and shoulderblade.

[Page 270, line 28] put in a substitute the International Rules of 1953 state: “If the injured player is unfit to play after 15 minutes the game shall be re-started with a substitute in place of the injured player”.

[Page 274, line 5] a wall of men and carriages indicating that the ten-yard (9 metre) safety area all around the ground had been violated: most improper!

[Page 275, line 7] Off side As stated in the introductory headnote, the offside rule was still applicable at this time.

[Page 275, line 27] glided under his very nose This looks very much like a foul. It seems that the ‘Archangel’, having right of way because he is following the line of the ball, should not be crossed by his opponent as Lutyens has done. Even if they has equal right of way, such close crossing would be stigmatised as dangerous and consequently might be judged (by one of the two umpires) as a foul. A standard work on polo says “the most common foul of all is riding across the path of an oncoming opponent having the right of way, so near as to cause him to check in order to avoid an accident”. But it is easy to believe that polo in India in those days was in the nature of a “free for all” by comparison with the modern game. See also the note on page 276, line 20, below.

[Page 276, line 10] Government-broad-arrow in India as in other parts of the Empire, the mark identifying government property (still used today), in the form of a stylised arrowhead with the central ‘shaft’ and two barbs (always seen in old cartoons on a convicted prisoner’s uniform). It dates from the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, and was the cognisance of Lord de L’Isle, the first Lord Commissioner of Ordnance.

[Page 276, line 20] The Archangel’s back missed his stroke and pulled aside just in time to let the rush go by some players of the past, writing in Kipling Journals, suggested that this represents the only mistake made by Kipling in the story as the back risked an accident and so was guilty of a foul. An opinion has recently been obtained from Major J.A. Board, the author of the standard work Polo, who is also an illustrator of ‘The Maltese Cat’ [can anyone say where.please?]; and from Brigadier J.R.C. Gammon, Secretary of the Hurlingham Polo Association, who are agreed that upon any reasonable interpretation of the narrative was committed by the Archangel’s back, but, on the other hand, fouls have been committed previously by both the Maltese Cat and Who’s Who.

[Page 277, line 21] Zakhme Bagan The ORG merely says “?” And today, we can do no better – the phrase even stumps ‘Google’.

[Page 277, line 25] For they are all jolly good fellows the Englishman’s chant of approval, the origins of which are lost in the mists of history. The tune to which it is usually sung is the early 18th century one ‘Malbrouck s’en va-t-en guerre’.

[Page 277, line 26] Ooh, Kafoozalum! a bawdy song, known to all denizens of officers’ messes. (Though, having bawled it many times in rugby club house bars, the present compiler can see no connection between the version he knows (and which he believes to be ‘the authorised version’) and the losing of a match in any sport.)

[Page 278, line 9] three thousand for that pony i.e. Rs. 3,000, at that time equal to £200, approx. See the note on average prices in the 1890s in the introductory headnotes. It need hardly be said that the odds against a first class polo pony coming from between the shafts of a vegetable cart in Malta are several thousand to one.


©Alastair Wilson 2005 All rights reserved