Her Little Responsibility

by Rudyard Kipling

[a short tale]

And No Man may answer for the Soul of His Brother

IT was two in the morning, and Epstin’s Dive was almost empty, when a Thing staggered down the steps that led to that horrible place and fawned on me disgustingly for the price of a drink. “I’m dying of thirst,” he said, but his tone was not that of a street loafer. There is a freemasonry, the freemasonry of the public schools, stronger than any that the Craft knows. The Thing drank whisky raw, which in itself is not calculated to slake thirst, and I waited at its side because I knew, by virtue of the one sentence above recorded, that it once belonged to my caste. Indeed, so small is the world when one begins to travel round it, that, for aught I knew, I might even have met the Thing in that menagerie of carefully-trained wild beasts, Decent Society. And the Thing drank more whisky ere the flood-gates of its speech were loosed and spoke of the wonderful story of its fall.

Never man, he said, had suffered more than he, or for slighter sin. Whereat I winked beerily into the bottom of my empty glass, having heard that tale before. I think the Thing had been long divided from all social and moral restraint—even longer from the wholesome influence of soap and water.

“What I feel most down here,’’ said It, and by “down here” I presume he meant the Inferno of his own wretchedness, “is the difficulty about getting a bath. A man can always catch a free lunch at any of the bars in the city, if he has money enough to buy a drink with, and you can sleep out for six or eight months of the year without harm, but San Francisco doesn’t run to free baths. It’s not an amusing life any way you look at it. I’m more or less used to things, but it hurts me even now to meet a decent man who knows something of life in the old country. I was raised at Harrow—Harrow, if you please—and I’m not five-and-twenty yet, and I haven’t got a penny, and I haven’t got a friend, and there is nothing in creation that I can command except a drink, and I have to beg for that. Have you ever begged for a drink? It hurts at first, but you get used to it. My father’s a parson. I don’t think he knows I beg drink. He lives near Salisbury. Do you know Salisbury at all? And then there’s my mother, too. But I have not heard from either of them for a couple of years. They think I’m in a real estate office in Washington Territory, coining money hand over fist. If ever you run across them—I suppose you will some day—there’s the address. Tell them that you’ve seen me, and that I am well and fit. Understand?—well and fit. I guess I’ll be dead by the time you see ’em. That’s hard. Men oughtn’t to die at five-and-twenty—of drink. Say, were you ever mashed on a girl? Not one of these you see, girls out here, but an English one—the sort of girl one meets at the Vicarage tennis-party, don’t you know. A girl of our own set. I don’t mean mashed exactly, but dead, clean gone, head over ears; and worse than that I was once, and I fancy I took the thing pretty much as I take liquor now. I didn’t know when to stop. It didn’t seem to me that there was any reason for stopping in affairs of that kind. I’m quite sure there’s no reason for stopping half-way with liquor. Go the whole hog and die. It’s all right, though—I’m not going to get drunk here. Five in the morning will suit me just as well, and I haven’t the chance of talking to one of you fellows often. So you cut about in fine clothes, do you, and take your drinks at the best bars and put up at the Palace? All Englishmen do. Well, here’s luck; you may be what I am one of these days. You’ll find companions quite as well raised as yourself.

.     .     .     .     .

“But about this girl. Don’t do what I did. I fell in love with her. She lived near us in Salisbury; that was when I had a clean shirt every day and hired horses to ride. One of the guineas I spent on that amusement would keep me for a week here. But about this girl. I don’t think some men ought to be allowed to fall in love any more than they ought to be allowed to taste whisky. She said she cared for me. Used to say that about a thousand times a day, with a kiss in between. I think about those things now, and they make me nearly as drunk as the whisky does. Do you know anything about that love-making business? I stole a copy of Cleopatra off a bookstall in Kearney Street, and that priest-chap says a very true thing about it. You can’t stop when it’s once started, and when it’s all over you can’t give it up at the word of command. I forget the precise language. That girl cared for me. I’d give something if she could see me now. She doesn’t like men without collars and odd boots and somebody else’s hat; but anyhow she made me what I am, and some day she’ll know it. I came out here two years ago to a real estate office; my father bought me some sort of a place in the firm. We were all Englishmen, but we were about a match for an average Yankee; but I forgot to tell you I was engaged to the girl before I came out. Never you make a woman swear oaths of eternal constancy. She’ll break every one of them as soon as her mind changes, and call you unjust for making her swear them. I worked enough for five men in my first year. I got a little house and lot in Tacoma fit for any woman. I never drank, I hardly ever smoked, I sold real estate all day, and wrote letters at night. She wrote letters, too, about as full of affection as they make ’em. You can tell nothing from a woman’s letter, though. If they want to hide any- thing, they just double the ‘dears’ and ‘darlings,’ and then giggle when the man fancies himself deceived.

“I don’t suppose I was worse off than hundreds of others, but it seems to me that she might have had the grace to let me down easily. She went and got married. I don’t suppose she knew exactly what she was doing, because I got the letters just the same six weeks after she was married! It was an odd copy of an English paper that showed me what had happened. It came in on the same day as one of her letters, telling me she would be true to the gates of death. Sounds like a novel, doesn’t it? But it did not amuse me in the least. I wasn’t constructed to pitch the letters into the fire and pick up with a Yankee girl. I wrote her a letter; I rather wish I could remember what was in that letter. Then I went to a bar in Tacoma and had some whisky, about a gallon, I suppose. If I had anything approaching to a word of honour about me, I would give it you that I did not know what happened until I was told that my partnership with the firm had been dissolved, and that the house and lot did not belong to me any more. I would have left the firm and sold the house, anyhow, but the crash sobered me for about three days. Then I started another jamboree. I might have got back after the first one, and been a prominent citizen, but the second bust settled matters. Then I began to slide on the down-grade straight off, and here I am now. I could write you a book about what I have come through, if I could remember it. The worst of it is I can see that she wasn’t worth losing anything in life for, but I’e lost just everything, and I’m like the priest-chap in Cleopatra—I can’t get over what I remember. If she had let me down easy, and given me warning, I should have been awfully cut up for a time, but I should have pulled through. She didn’t do that, though. She lied to me all along, and married a curate, and I dare say she’ll be a virtuous she-vicar later on; but the little affair broke me dead, and if I had more whisky in me I should be blubbering like a calf all round this Dive. That would have disgusted you, wouldn’t it?”

“Yes,” said I.