The Man who Was

Notes on the text

These notes, by John McGivering, are partly new, and partly based on the ORG. The page and line numbers below refer to the Macmillan (London) Standard Edition of Life’s Handicap, as published and frequently reprinted between 1891 and 1950.


[Page 97] Heading Two four-line stanzas by Kipling, attributed to Ballad.
Philip Holberton writes: The verses echo the story. A long-lost officer, who has been a prisoner of the Russians for thirty 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:

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. This editor has never heard of numbers being scored before the fight as a sort of “To Do” list. [P.H.]

[Page 97, line 1] the Russian The Russian Empire then consisted of some 1.5 million square miles in Europe, with a population of about 54 million people, in Asia some 6.7 million square miles and 108 million people. The government was an absolute hereditary monarchy under the Czar Alexander III (1854-1894) Kipling’s limited experience of the people, coupled with the prevailing fear of an invasion from the North and his first-hand knowledge of their troop-movements (Something of Myself, Chapter 3) has led him to generalise in this manner. [See his verse “The Truce of the Bear” and Peter Hopkirk, The Great Game, (OUP, 1990)]

[Page 97, line 11] Cossack military communities of the Russian Empire who guarded the frontiers and were considered the best of their light cavalry.

[Page 98, line 3] Balkh or Bactria, a province of Afghan Turkestan.
Badakshan part of Afghan Turkestan.
Chitral then a small State on the borders of Kashmir
Beluchistan then an Indian State, capital Quetta.

[Page 98, line 4] Nepaul more usually Nepal – home of the Gurkhas who make some of the finest soldiers in the world.

[Page 98, line 10] White Hussars mentioned in “The Rout of the White Hussars (Plain Tales from the Hills) and “Only a Subaltern” (Wee Willie Winkie) they are based on the 9th (The Queens) Lancers [ORG].

[Page 99, line 17] sotnia a squadron of Cossack cavalry, from the Russian cotna (sotnya) “a hundred.”

[Page 99, lines 26-7] Lady Durgan…Sir John Durgan Not traced – presumably fictitious characters.

[Page 100, line 3] black crepe a band of black material worn round the upper arm is a sign of mourning.

[Page 100, line 9] four thousand a year Pounds sterling, now probably roughly the equivalent of £100,000 per annum, and nine or ten times Kipling’s salary at the time.

[Page 100, line 23] Martini-Henry carbines The Martini Henry carbine was a cavalry weapon introduced in 1877. [see]. ORG states that there was once a Standing Order that there must be a court-martial for every weapon stolen. See also the note to “His Chance in Life” at page 82, line 14 of Plain Tales from the Hills.

[Page 101, line 18] polo has been described as “hockey on horseback” but it comes from pulu, the Thibetan for “ball” and seems to have been played in the time of Darius the Great in 500 B.C., long before hockey was invented. The game can probably best be understood by reading “The Maltese Cat” (The Day’s Work), together wit6h Alastair Wilson’s notes for this Guide.

[Page 101, line 20] the Lushkar Light Horse One of the Regiments (Irregular) of the Punjab Frontier Force; see below.

[Page 101, line 22] a native officer he would hold a Commission from the Viceroy, unlike the officers of the British army who held Commissions from the Queen.

[Page 101, line 30] carried themselves with the swing …. a variation of the “Cavalry swagger” demonstrated by Minnie Threegan in “Poor Dear Mamma” (Soldiers Three).

[Page 101, lines 31 – 32] Punjab Frontier Force … Irregular Horse ORG, Volume 2, pp. 962 ff. has an account of this distinguished Regiment written by their last British commanding officer.

[Page 102. line 5] mess plate “plate” in this context is silver or gold – usually solid – models of military figures, candelabra, etc. of great beauty and sentimental value. It was often the custom for members to present some item to the mess when they retired. See page 109, line 17 below and “The Rout of the White Hussars”. in Plain Tales from the Hills.

[Page 102, lines 12-14] sambhur Rusa unicolour, an Indian elk.
nilghai Boselaphus tragocamelus, a large Indian antelope. The nickname of one of the war-correspondents in The Light that Failed.
markhor Capra falconeri, a large wild goat with spiral horns and a shaggy coat.
snow leopards Felis pardus, large animals of the cat family. It was then considered good sport to shoot these and similar “big game” and exhibit their stuffed and mounted heads as described here. [See Jan Morris, The Spectacle of Empire (Faber, 1982) p. 165 for an officers’ mess in Peshawar and officers of the 1st Bengal Cavalry.]

[Page 102, line 29] down-countrymen the Ressaidar Sahib says (page 104, line 6) ”We came down from afar…” but as this story is set in Peshawar the meaning is not clear.

[Page 103, line 2] dinner-slips strips of (usually) linen, running the length of the table instead of place-mats; they are quickly removed by servants pulling them from one end of the table (often with shouts of encouragement from the diners) when it is cleared after the last course before the Loyal Toast (the Toast to the Queen).

[Page 103, line 4] Mr. Vice, the Queen the toast is proposed by the Dinner President, (not necessarily the Colonel unless it is the custom of the regiment) and is addressed to the Vice President (“little Mildred” in this instance) at the other end of the table who replies ‘Gentlemen, the Queen’. All then rise and drink the toast.

The date of the story, however, is supposed to be set some time after 1884 (page 113, line 32) when the Toast should have been ‘The Queen-Empress.’ The Toast to ‘The Queen’ would have been correct before the outbreak of the Crimean war in 1853, when Limmason was in the mess, as the Queen was not proclaimed Empress of India until 1877. It is still the custom in some messes, when a foreign officer is dining, to ask him to propose the health of ‘our sovereign’, and the mess-president proposes the toast of the foreign officer’s sovereign.

[Page 103, line 19] He could … not eat with the mess His religion would have prevented him.

[Page 103, line 23] He thrust forward the hilt of his sabre… a charming old custom explained in “The Tomb of His Ancestors (The Day’s Work) p.111 – an honour paid only to viceroys, governors, generals, or to little children whom one loves dearly. British officers, however, do not wear swords or sabres in the mess. (p. 104, line 33]

[Page 103, line 26] Rung ho Go in and win ! (Not to be confused with Gung-Ho – a phrase adopted by the U.S. Marine Corps in about 1942.

[Page 103, line 28] Ressaidar Sahib a misprint for “Ressaldar” corrected in the Sussex Edition; Kipling’s writing was occasionally difficult to read, and must have misled the print setters. The word comes from the Arabic for an Indian officer of irregular horse or infantry – see Hobson-Jobson (page 761).

[Page 103, line 30] Shabash … ! Well done ! from the Persian Shah-bash – ‘Be joyful !’

[Page 104, line 6] We came down from afar… unclear, as at page 102, line 29.

[Page 104, line 16] sword-hilt it was a sabre. (page 103, line 23 above)

[Page 105, line 1] defenceless left side swords or sabres would have been left in the ante-room.

[Page 105, line 8] flags in this context, paving-stones.

[Page 105, line 31] all the Tongues of the Pentecost:

And when the day of Pentecost was fully come …. there came a sound from heaven, as of a rushing mighty wind … and they began to speak with other tongues…
[Acts 2,1-3]

See also Acts 20, 16. Pentecost is a festival in the Jewish calendar and is called ‘Whit Sunday’ in the Christian churches.

[Page 107, line 15] shadow as of a huge black coffin [It would be interesting to know if such a mess-room ever existed; Ed.]

[Page 107, line 28] the Victoria Cross still the highest British military decoration for bravery. See “Winning the Victoria Cross” (Land and Sea Tales) for a proper account of it as Kipling is, of course, exaggerating here.

[Page 107, line 30] picked up his team with his eyes like the hostess at a dinner when the ladies withdrew from the table and leave the gentlemen to brandy and cigars. [See ”The Tents of Kedar” (Wee Willie Winkie, page 156, line 29).

[Page 108, line 6] Basset-Holmer ORG observes that it is unusual for the senior captain (page 100, line 7) to be the adjutant.

[Page 108, line 14] Boot and saddle the order to cavalry to mount horses, from the French boute selle (put on the saddle), and nothing to do with boots! [Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable]

[Page 108, line 22] the pit whence he was digged:

…look into the rock whence ye are hewn, and to the hole of the pit whence ye are digged.
[Isaiah, 51,1. See also Psalms 35, 7 and 119,85.]

[Page 109, line 9] springs this may be Kipling’s writing again – it should be “sprigs”, small branches.

[Page 109, line 19] a mounted hussar a typical example of mess plate – see page 102, line 5 above.

[Page 110, line 1] piebald the body of the horse is marked with large irregular patches of white and black.
drumhorse see “The Rout of the White Hussars” (Plain Tales fom the Hills).

[Page 110. line 12] ’67 1867.

[Page 111, line 1] young woman Queen Victoria was eighteen when she succeeded to the throne in 1837 and fifty-eight when she became Empress of India.

[Page 111, line 3] drink the Queen’s toast in broken glass [One is familiar with the Russian tradition of throwing the glass into the fireplace after drinking, but it would be interested to know if snapping the stem of the glass was ever a British custom; Ed.]

[Page 111, line 29] only one weapon in the world that cuts … the knout – a form of whip used in Russia which inflicts terrible wounds – see the note to “The Education of Otis Yeere” (Wee Willie Winkie).

[Page 112, line 1] Shto ve takete Educated Russians often spoke French, but here Dirkovitch was speaking Russian. [On page 98, line 8 he was described as ‘speaking bad English and worse French’.] Kipling seems to have tried – not very successfully – to transcribe the Russian question: “Shto eto takoye?” – “What is it?”. For Dirkovitch the runaway prisoner is evidently ‘it’. The subsequent terror of Limmason shows graphically that he understands Russian, not French. He has no reason to be afraid of a French-speaking officer.

Kipling probably understood some Russian, in order to translate news items from time to time in his work as a journalist, but we have no evidence that he spoke the language. At USC he had read some Pushkin and Lermontoff, but in French translations.

[Page 112, line 2] Chetyre four.

[Page 112, line 7] qualified this usage is a euphemism for a curse.

[Page 112, line 23] St. Petersburg then capital of the Russian Empire, renamed Petrograd in 1914, Leningrad in 1924 and, in 1991, St. Petersburg again. Moscow has been the capital since 1918.

[Page 112, line 30] Holmer, get the rolls ! Rolls, in this context, are records of the men who had served in the regiment.

[Page 113, line 10] an accident … he was not exchanged it appears from the text that he somehow angered a colonel who took a terrible revenge.

[Page 113, lines 14 and 16] Chepany…Zhigansk… Irkutsk Towns in Siberia with prison-camps.

[Page 113, line 29] Lieutenant Austin Limmason ORG puts forward the ingenious suggestion that ‘Limmason’ may be a disguised form of ‘Fitzgibbon’ – ‘Fitz’ meaning ‘son of’ and lemur a type of monkey, as is a gibbon.

Fitzgibbon was the heir of the last Earl of Clare and a Lieutenant in the 8th (King’s Royal Irish) Hussars. He took part in the charge of the Light Brigade against the Russians at Sebastopol, was wounded and not found or exchanged afterwards. Other similar examples of soldiers returning after long absences are recorded.

[Page 113, line 30] before Sebastopol the siege began in the autumn of 1854.

[Page 113, line 32] thirty years so this dinner takes place in 1884.

[Page 114, line 33] opals precious or semi-precious stones, some of which reflect light in various colours.

[Page 115, line 5] The Czar The Emperor of Russia.
Posh ! This may have been a mispronunciation of the slang word ‘bosh’, meaning ‘nonsense’; or perhaps Dirkovitch had meant to say ‘pooh’ or ‘pish’, meaning much the same thing. The word ‘posh’ implies grandeur or superiority, and this is certainly not what he meant. The first recorded use of ‘posh’ was in 1918.

[Page 115, lines 10 – 24] Napoleon his disastrous invasion of Russia in 1812 is dismissed as unimportant compared to what will happen when Russia begins to move.

[Page 115, line 31] the Dead March from the oratorio Saul (1739) by George Frederic Handel (1685-1759) usually played at military funerals.

[Page 116. line 11] Au revoir Good-bye, until we meet again (French).

[Page 116, line 16] North Star burned over the Khyber Pass Kipling has lost his bearings here – this story is set in Peshawar, some twenty-five miles east of the pass. Writing this in London, Kipling may have imagined himself in Lahore, away to the south-east, but this little slip does not detract from the gripping story. Most of his readers (including this one ) would not have noticed the difference anyway !

[Page 116, line 17] Happy to meet you … implying that the British would be ready for him if he did return.

[Page 116, line 19] Cheroots, ice, bedding travellers had to take most of their requirements with them.

[Page 116, line 24] Little Mildred his name also appears in “What it Comes To” part of “The Smith Administration” (From Sea to Sea, Volume 2) This time he is an officer in ‘The Tyneside Tail-Twisters’, a fictitious regiment based upon the Northumberland Fusiliers.

[Page 116, line 28] I’m sorry for Mister Bluebeard etc a song from a revue written by one of the Viceroy’s ADCs – see Andrew Lycett (p. 162).

[J H McG]

©John McGivering 2006 All rights reserved