This story first appeared in Macmillan’s Magazine of April 1890 and Harper’s Weekly on 15 April the same year. Collected in Life’s Handicap and published in the United States of America in a volume called Mine Own People in 1891.
Frederick Kinsey Peile (1862-1934) adapted it for the stage and it was performed at Drury Lane in London in 1907: Sir Herbert Beerbohm Tree (1853-1917) toured with it in theatres and music-halls, playing the part of Limmason. See Andrew Lycett (p. 353).
This story reflects the powerful feeling, shared by soldiers and civilians in British India, that they faced a serious threat from Imperial Russia, which at that time was extending its power and influence south and east into Asia.
The officers of the White Hussars, a crack cavalry regiment, are dining in their splendid mess, and entertaining Dirkovitch, a Russian officer who has been travelling through India as a correspondent. They do not take to him, but their manners are impeccable. There is a noise outside, and the sentries bring in a bedraggled figure who they suspect of stealing rifles. He proves to be Captain Limmason, a long-lost officer of the regiment, who had been captured years ago by the Russians on an intelligence mission, and brutally treated. He has now escaped and found his way home. He is terrified of Dirkovitch, but recovers himself, and drinks the loyal toast in the old style. Dirkovitch makes a vainglorious speech which does not endear him to the mess.
Limasson dies shortly afterwards. The regiment say good bye to Dirkovitch with an enhanced determination to deal briskly with any incursions by the Cossacks.
A similar story, which must have been known to Kipling, had gained currency twenty-five years after the Crimean War, during the second Afghan War of 1878-1880, when the 8th Hussars, who had fought at Balaclava in 1854, were stationed near the North-West frontier.
One night a dishevelled looking man who spoke English, but seemed unaccustomed to doing so, was brought into the officers’ mess. He was invited to stay for dinner, where he surprised all by having an uncannily good knowledge of the regimental customs, indicating he was an ex-officer of the regiment. He was not asked to identify himself, but on examining the regimental records it was discovered that the only ex-officer whose whereabouts had not been positively accounted for was Lieutenant Viscount FitzGibbon, who was thought to have been killed in the Charge of the Light Brigade. See the Patrick Comerford website..
In Life’s Handicap the story is headed by the following lines, also collected in Songs from Books (1913).
The Earth gave up her dead that tide,
Into our camp he came,
And said his say, and went his way,
And left our hearts aflame.
Keep tally—on the gun-butt score
The vengeance we must take,
When God shall bring full reckoning,
For our dead comrade’s sake.
Philip Holberton writes The verses echo the story. A long-lost officer, who has been a prisoner of the Russians for 30 years, finds his way back to his regiment but dies from his sufferings. The White Hussars vow to take their revenge when the long-expected war with Russia comes.
Keep tally — On the gun-butt score / the vengeance we must take,,. it is said that gun-fighters in the American Wild West cut notches on the butts of their revolvers to keep count of the men they had killed, but this Editor has never heard of numbers being scored before the fight as a sort of “To Do” list. [P.H.]
Some critical comments
See J I M Stewart (p. 64) for a remarkably sensitive examination of the story which he likens to a companion piece to “The Man who would be King” (Wee Willie Winkie).
Angus Wilson (p. 78) admires the melodrama that made it so successful on the London stage but, unlike Stewart above, finds the action in the mess unconvincing, quoting Lord Lurgard’s observation that: His (Kipling’s) knowledge of the barrack-room is greater than that of the officers’ mess.
J M S Tompkins (p. 82) likens this story to “The Tree of Justice” (Rewards and Fairies) where Harold, supposed to have survived the battle of Hastings, comes to the court of Henry I , remembers some ritual of his own court and dies.
Norman Page (p. 104) quotes The Gentleman’s Magazine which calls it: ‘a glorious masterpiece’ and The Academy: ‘an admirable story’.
The Boston Transcript (quoted by Knowles, p. 142): For pathos rising into tragedy and as curious, strange, and unexpected, choose “The Man Who Was.”
Seymour-Smith (p.208) believes this to be less a story than a substantial sketch, adding: ‘Kipling shows perspicacity about the political nature of the Russians, but little understanding of or even interest in what they are like as individuals.’
[J H McG]
©John McGivering 2005 All rights reserved