I was reading an odd number of the St. George’s Gazette and, studying the motto for the thousandth time, fell into a muse.
The Fates have called me across the track of the Old Regiment fairly early and fairly often. First eastward to Lahore, six miles distant by dusty roads from the cantonments of Mian Mir. This was after the 8th, who were relieved by the 30th, had been badly hit by cholera and fever, and had left a good many men where, as the song says:
Underneath that kunkar dry
Twenty thousand corpses lie,
Flower of Runjit’s soldiery—
Slain by sickness, not the sword;
And above them, white and grey,
Stands, a mark for miles away,
Church of good St. Golgotha
To the Glory of the Lord!
To the 30th succeeded THE FIFTH. I saw them come in, a thousand and eighty strong — smallish tough men, all of a size and most with a grateful Northumbrian burr. It was their custom once a year to adorn their helmets with red and white roses, in honour of a certain saint — roses plucked from the sides of the Thanda Sark — such roses as grow at Amritzar for the distilleries — heavy-scented Bengal roses. To this hour a certain smell of roses in hot sunshine brings back to me a certain corner outside the Lawrence Hall Gate, where a be-wreathed and fragrant Fusilier was (for good reason) bundled into an ekka just in time to save his being seen by an officer driving to polo. I am afraid my first introduction to THE FIFTH was not precisely through regular channels; but it was very useful.
Later, I became the guest of a frivolous person who told me that a new and shy subaltern had just joined and that we would drink wine with him. This we did upon a guest-night, so that presently he grew thoughtful and went to bed. That night stands out very clearly in my memory. I recall the new-joined boy’s pink-and-white face turned to my host’s; there was no shadow of Stormberg or Sanna’s Post to darken either, and the huge Captain, behind whose back we jested, never dreamed that he would one day command an entirely new Battalion of the Old Regiment. I remember the sparkle of the Mess plate; the rattle and riot of the chaff down among the subalterns; the kindly voice of the Colonel asking me about his son, with whom I had been at school; the slight lisp of a junior Captain who trained ponies (The Witch was one, I believe) to walk into unexpected places (same as he did west of Belmont later); and certain songs that were sung till the glasses danced in the European Infantry Mess — in the days of the Martini-Henry Rifle when THE FIFTH were new to Mian Mir.
The Fates called me not seldom to that Mess, where I listened to the band; and to those barracks, where I listened to other matters; to the Lawrence Hall, where we danced, not counting ‘Cinderellas’, thrice a week for four months of the year; to the carefully-flooded tennis-courts near the bougainvilleas, and to the Lahore racecourse (one mile, six furlongs, twenty yards) and to the brick-hard polo-ground opposite the grandstand. There were three or four subalterns with whom I specially played, and in return they played with me at the Club and in Fort Lahore when they went up on detachment. Who among the living — the estimable round Majors with D.S.O.’s — remembers our weird cold-weather dinners in the old tomb which was the Fort Mess-room, when we sat down in our poshteens and mingled ten—fifteen—twenty-five— grains at a time of quinine with our sherry and bitters, and talked of everything under heaven till it was time to visit the sentries? Who remembers the coughing ponies outside the guard-gate where Runjit Singh sleeps with eleven of his wives; the clatter of sleepy feet descending the brick steps of the Quarter-guard; and the disgraceful attempt of a civilian (at 2 A.M.) to personate Visiting Rounds? Who remembers the ghosts — the real ghosts? The Banjo that played by Itself, and the quarters over against the Shish Mahal where the Manifestations took place? The long, hot, dusty evenings when we sat above the Ditch watching the parrots coming back from the river like so much shrieking green shrapnel. The stillness of the interminable nights when the stars swung behind the Mosque of Wazir Khan? The snarl and worry-worry of a Mohurrum riot within the walls; or the dull boom of the city waking to another day of heat and sickness? We had not much money, but one way or another we did see life — of a queer sort—up in old Fort Lahore.
For the rest, THE FIFTH raced and sat up late in lottery tents (‘Nine hundred and forty rupees in the lottery and Grey Hen for sale!’) and made more or less calamitous books with the local talent. Strong confederacies wandered up and down the Punjab, and gentlemen riders (‘catch-weights over ten stone’) rode furiously. How were we to know that some of the gayest of that gay crowd would presently put aside childish things and live austerely between Prieska and Calvinia; burying the dead rebel with the ritual of the New, and chasing the living with the rigour of the Old Testament? We were more interested in Blitz, the most perfect Arab gentleman who ever looked through a bridle, for he was Lord of Upper India; and in Nina, little thirteen-hand Nina, the Lahore Confederacy’s country-bred, who ran him second for the Civil Service Cup. Also there was Lucky Boy, bought out of an ekka by a far-sighted subaltern, and he became a wonder, and cost some of us money; and there was Gazelle, who had manners, and Nana, who had none; and Rob Roy, who could jump, and Telephone, who was lame, and a brute called The Professor. Behind all was Afzul of the Kashmir Serai, ever ready to sell remounts. Sometimes; of course, things went wrong and horses fell down (or lottery-tents took fire), and on those occasions THE FIFTH may or may not have gone, with the rest of us, to Bunsee Lal and Ram Rutton for a little ready cash. In the intervals they cheered themselves with poora gin-tonic-and-bitters or the estimable ‘Macdougal,’ ‘MacDonald,’ or ‘Bamboo’ as the seasons varied, and their tastes prompted.
They gave dances, sumptuous ones, to the up-to-date tunes of See-Saw and Dream Faces, and among the guests were men looking rather like mere Captains of P3 or K2, who were destined to do heavy work in and outside Ladysmith. They gave theatricals — Alonzo the Brave, for instance, when one who is now a Colonel, but has been a Sergeant (Klooque for choice), capered in a table-cloth before eight hundred of his delighted men, and the immortal Vasey, as Martha, knocked us down in perishing heaps.
‘But’, says one looking over my shoulder, ‘you are only describing what every regiment in the East has done from time immemorial. If you went to Mian Mir to-morrow, you’d find the Royal Sussex, or who-ever it is, carrying on precisely like THE FIFTH.’
This is probably true, but still I cannot bring myself to believe that those (Orange) lilies of the field toil and spin as festively as did St. George and the Dragon. Perhaps their regimental paper will furnish a confidential report on these heads. Do they ever sit up so late at the Club that, to save parade, they snatch other people’s carts at 4.45 A.M. and sent them back with several spokes out of each wheel? Can they change into uniform en route; the sais driving over the back while the Sahib struggles into trousers and tunic? Have they ever seduced a pony—ekka—native—one in number—into a Major’s tent and lain out half the night to hear what the Major would say to his visitor? Do they know a ‘writter’ when they see him, and can they make that ‘writter’ happy and contented down by the elephant lines? Have they ever attended a Christmas week with the Piffers, and helped them play ‘Quill Snookers’ with a coiled-up hedgehog till the baize of the billiard-table looked like a bracken-patch, and the Club Secretary stood on one leg from pure emotion? Can they drive ‘random’—three agitated entries in a string—and coil up the whole outfit round a gate-post in the cold, cold moonlight? Have they ever dined at the Mess of the Door that Won’t Shut? Do they know the way to Baoli Lehna Singh, where the pig come from? And, if so, at whose house do they eat curried eggs and drink Pilsener after the pig-stick is over? I have a perfectly unjust notion, born of envy and the years, that the Royal Sussex (who, I take it, have been the 35th) cut up and down the Outram Road in motor-cars discussing problem plays over a nimbu-esquaash, and that if you asked them where you could get a bit of paper done on reasonable terms, they would probably direct you to the nearest printing-office. There were no days like the old days, and there was no regiment like the Old Regiment!
THE FIFTH stayed at Mian Mir a little too long, and the fever, at which they had scoffed on their arrival, hit them heavily. When they trooped the Colours at the First Jubilee, outside Fort Lahore on a February morning in ’87, there were many blue-gowned invalids hanging over the rails and explaining with the proper nicknames the merits, etc., of their company officers, Thus (for it doesn’t matter after fifteen years): ‘Collars and Cuffs is a good little man, but I do wish ‘e didn’t smell ‘is sword so, at the salute. There ‘e goes, as if it were a bloomin’ posy.’ Or judicially: ‘The Major’s running to belly something shockin’. ‘E’s ‘ad that old tunic let out again,’ or pathetically to a friend: ‘That’s Amelia! ‘Im an’ ‘is pet Sergeant ‘ave been persecutin’ me for the past three months; an’ look at ‘im now—trailin’ ‘is company ‘alf over the maidan like a kite with the string cut.’ (You must remember Lahore City was full of people flying kites, and the simile, for a company edging into line five seconds too late, is very nearly perfect.) There used to be some very good mimics in the ranks, and they could reproduce the manners and tones of their officers with an unholy skill. What they did not know, the officers’ servants supplied. Whereby they were enabled to give before a shouting barrack-room or a giggling Married Quarters an accurate presentment of Lieutenant So-and-so getting himself up regardless for an afternoon ride with Miss Such Another; or, better still, the blushing joy of Second Lieutenant Sweetlips paddling about among his razors on the occasion of his first real shave.
I am not quite sure whether THE FIFTH stayed out the First Jubilee hot weather with us. If they did they will preserve some record of that ghastly sing-song on Coronation night, ‘The Judgment Day Sing-Song’ — when Mian Mir broke all records in the way of heat and we lost a Colonel of native cavalry, a Sergeant’s wife, a private, and, I think, two children, all of heat-apoplexy, before the day broke. There was a red-hot wind, and stirrup-irons burned through dress-pumps, and the dust cut like lava in the nostrils; and I remember the lines of white faces in the glare of the tossing flare-lamps as the comic singers (one of them was a very first-class Chaplain) sweated and dripped.
In that year our ways divided. I went South, and picked up with a rather fascinating Cockney regiment full of talent in the step-dance and conjuring line, and THE FIFTH moved on their appointed path to Pindi. But in one way or another, I kept touch with the Old Regiment, picking up news here and there year after year.
At last all the names changed, and the Army List was a horror to read, and everybody grew up. So, after Omdurman, I said: ‘I am tired of these men who die and retire and are seconded. The Service is going to the dogs, and I will sever my connection with it.’
Then the Fates called with a vengeance—called THE FIFTH to Stormberg, and me to Cape Town. In that cheerful city (and Cape Town, before Ladysmith and Kimberley were relieved, was about as gay as Murree when the cholera broke out) I ran across a subaltern of the old FIFTH, thinly disguised as a Major in the Intelligence. He gave me news — more than I wanted; he told me of two or three ex-FIFTH men I should be likely to meet up the line, and when I went North he confided to my care about a quarter of a ton of documents for the Intelligence at Bloemfontein. This he did because he had heard of my singular uprightness and tact and discretion at Mian Mir, when a long-legged lunatic with an Irish brogue dropped the ticca-gharri horse into the culvert and we pulled it out with punkah ropes, and the gharri went home entirely on the spokes of its front wheels because it had mislaid its tires. In return, he heard my holiest thoughts about the Intelligence Department.
That journey North was pure joy. Three out of five men that I had ever known in India seemed to be on the line or near it. I tumbled over them at wayside stations, in telegraph offices, and dongas; in camps, in ammunition-columns, and hospitals — the men from Cherat, and Sialkot, and Pindi, and Umballa, and Mian Mir, and the other good places of perpetual youth. Some of them pretended to be Brigadiers and things of a repulsive nature, but, as a matter of fact, the shadow turned back on the dial, and we were all young, and we talked the slang of our stations and loyally backed each other’s biggest lies (particularly when any Egyptian officers were about) lest the prestige of the East should suffer. Those Bimbashi and Kaimakan-log are really quite respectable fictionists for amateurs. Some of them almost forced some of us to a twelve-anna gallop. But we won. I gave over the documents at Bloemfontein and hunted zealously for old friends. Incidentally, through no earthly desire of my own, I came within appreciable distance of going to Pretoria in advance of the Grand Army. But, before the invitation was pressed, a Column-Commander arrived with three pom-poms and, among other things, conveyed my regrets that present engagements did not permit, etc., etc. The last time I had heard anything of that Column-Commander was when they were settling the weights for a Cup which he and another man had given at the Lahore Spring Races of ’86, and the handicapping was level enough to bring all four horses entered into the lottery within fifty rupees of one another. I was exceedingly happy to hear from him again, and more than willing to accept his entries at any weights he chose to declare.
The war in Orange River Colony was supposed to be over, barring a few ‘bill-sticking’ expeditions, but one stuffy, stale evening, outside Bloemfontein, I met a man on a spent horse who told me that he represented Doctor Brydon at Jellalabad, or words to that effect, and passed on, gasping and rocking in the saddle. I gathered from others that a ‘bill-sticking’ expedition had come to grief somewhere out Thabanchu way. Both my friends of the old FIFTH were with or near the Column and I wanted further details. An effusive shop-keeper advised me an hour later that not less than forty thousand Boers were closing in on Bloemfontein after having ‘destroyed the flower of the British Army’ at a place called Sanna’s Post. I knew that flower. It grows weedy in spots, and just then might have been rather ragged; but it is not an easy herb to destroy. At last one of my friends turned up, a little frayed at the edges but otherwise as serene as in the old days at Mian Mir. He said that the affair was not what you might call a success except for the Boers. From a professional point of view he was very pleased with the Boers, and praised, while he explained, their simple tactics at Koornspruit.
‘And so,’ he concluded, ‘that was about all.’
‘But what of The Boy?’ I asked, forgetting that The Boy was a Major.
The Fates had not called The Boy back from Sanna’s Post, and I marvelled, as I listened, at their workings; because that Boy had been my frivolous host at the guest-night when we took tea with the new subaltern, and he who told me the news of The Boy’s death was a pony-training Captain. And now The Boy was dead, and the new-joined subaltern a prisoner at Pretoria, and he who told the tale had commanded expeditions in West Africa and taken columns into Sunnyside and eloped from Ladybrand with the landrost, so to speak, on his saddle-bow, and there we two sat, looking back over the years, in a pea-green hotel at Bloemfontein, listening to the rumble of the ambulances.
‘What are you going to do?’ I asked drearily.
‘I shall try to pull a little of it back later,’ he answered, and passed out into the whirl of dust and khaki. It would have paid the Boers to have killed him early, because he became a column-leader of repute, and did them much well-considered evil for many months.
Next year I was out at the Cape again, and met the news that the old FIFTH had been badly cut up, and that one of the Majors was at a base hospital, wounded. I went to see him for the sake of that first Mess-room dinner and some slight acquaintance after. But the hospitals were under new and very sanitary regulations. A P.M.O. explained them to me. You could not visit without a permit, and you must be accompanied round the wards by an orderly. This was not a visiting day and therefore I could not see my friend. So I did not see him. He recovered and returned to his duty and to his death up country. He had been a prisoner. He was twice, I think, wounded, and at the last he was killed — this man whom I remember with his buttons scarcely out of their tissue-paper, laughing and jesting with The Boy at Mess. I never thought that either of them could die. A convalescent Sergeant in a canteen gave me news of the death next year when I went down South again. He talked of dozens of officers who had joined long after my time; of Sergeant-Majors (and you expect a Sergeant-Major to be fairly permanent) whose names were strange to me; and of a rank and file that had sprung up the day before yesterday. It was like talking to a deaf man in a cemetery, and I felt that the wheel had come full circle, and that the Fates would call me towards THE FIFTH no more.
But who knows? Some time, maybe, our paths will cross again, and I may sit out another guest-night and see the old plate (of which even now I could supply a fairly accurate inventory) and hear the Band and watch the cased Colours, and wonder whether I am awake or dreaming.
I shall take my seat, of course, between Colonels and Majors by virtue of my seniority; but I shall endear myself to the subalterns—the butchas who can stand up and sing ‘Auld Lang Syne’ without a quaver—by asking them why their cuff-links and the Mess cigar-lamps are made like old-fashioned shells with little fuses atop, and whether they wear the flash or trim their hats with holly on Christmas Day. I shall discuss Army Reform long and raucously. I shall put plenty of soda-water into my champagne, and I shall go home at 10.15 p.m. (but I shall not try to turn out any Guard by the way), and if anybody asks me whether I have enjoyed myself, I shall say: ‘Not at all. Your ante-room’s too full of ghosts.’