What did the colonel’s lady think?
Nobody never knew.
Somebody asked the sergeant’s wife
An’ she told ’em true.
When you git to a man in the case
They’re like a row o’ pins,
For the colonel’s lady an’
Are sisters under their skins.
—Barrack Room Ballad.
ALL DAY I had followed at the heels of a pursuing army engaged on one of the finest battles that ever camp of exercise beheld. Thirty thousand troops had, by the wisdom of the Government of India, been turned loose over a few thousand square miles of country to practise in peace what they would never attempt in war. Consequently cavalry charged unshaken infantry at the trot. Infantry captured artillery by frontal attacks delivered in line of quarter columns, and mounted infantry skirmished up to the wheels of an armoured train which carried nothing more deadly than a twenty-five pounder Armstrong, two Nordenfeldts, and a few score volunteers all cased in three-eighths-inch boiler-plate. Yet it was a very lifelike camp. Operations did not cease at sundown; nobody knew the country and nobody spared man or horse. There was unending cavalry scouting and almost unending forced work over broken ground. The Army of the South had finally pierced the centre of the Army of the North, and was pouring through the gap hot-foot to capture a city of strategic importance. Its front extended fanwise, the sticks being represented by regiments strung out along the line of route backwards to the divisional transport columns and all the lumber that trails behind an army on the move. On its right the broken left of the Army of the North was flying in mass, chased by the Southern horse and hammered by the Southern guns till these had been pushed far beyond the limits of their last support. Then the flying sat down to rest, while the elated commandant of the pursuing force telegraphed that he held all in check and observation.
Unluckily he did not observe that three miles to his right flank a flying column of Northern horse with a detachment of Ghoorkhas and British troops had been pushed round as fast as the failing light allowed, to cut across the entire rear of the Southern Army,—to break, as it were, all the ribs of the fan where they converged by striking at the transport, reserve ammunition, and artillery supplies. Their instructions were to go in, avoiding the few scouts who might not have been drawn off by the pursuit, and create sufficient excitement to impress the Southern Army with the wisdom of guarding their own flank and rear before they captured cities. It was a pretty manœuvre, neatly carried out.
Speaking for the second division of the Southern Army, our first intimation of the attack was at twilight, when the artillery were labouring in deep sand, most of the escort were trying to help them out, and the main body of the infantry had gone on. A Noah’s Ark of elephants, camels, and the mixed menagerie of an Indian transport-train bubbled and squealed behind the guns, when there appeared from nowhere in particular British infantry to the extent of three companies, who sprang to the heads of the gun-horses and brought all to a standstill amid oaths and cheers.
‘How’s that, umpire?’ said the major commanding the attack, and with one voice the drivers and limber gunners answered ‘Hout!’ while the colonel of artillery sputtered.
‘All your scouts are charging our main body,’ said the major. ‘Your flanks are unprotected for two miles. I think we’ve broken the back of this division. And listen,—there go the Ghoorkhas!’
A weak fire broke from the rear-guard more than a mile away, and was answered by cheerful howlings. The Ghoorkhas, who should have swung clear of the second division, had stepped on its tail in the dark, but drawing off hastened to reach the next line of attack, which lay almost parallel to us five or six miles away.
Our column swayed and surged irresolutely,—three batteries, the divisional ammunition reserve, the baggage, and a section of the hospital and bearer corps. The commandant ruefully promised to report himself ‘cut up’ to the nearest umpire, and commending his cavalry and all other cavalry to the special care of Eblis, toiled on to resume touch with the rest of the division.
‘We’ll bivouac here to-night,’ said the major, ‘I have a notion that the Ghoorkhas will get caught. They may want us to re-form on. Stand easy till the transport gets away.’
A hand caught my beast’s bridle and led him out of the choking dust; a larger hand deftly canted me out of the saddle; and two of the hugest hands in the world received me sliding. Pleasant is the lot of the special correspondent who falls into such hands as those of Privates Mulvaney, Ortheris, and Learoyd.
‘An’ that’s all right,’ said the Irishman calmly. ‘We thought we’d find you somewheres here by. Is there anything av yours in the transport? Orth’ris’ll fetch ut out.’
Ortheris did ‘fetch ut out,’ from under the trunk of an elephant, in the shape of a servant and an animal both laden with medical comforts. The little man’s eyes sparkled.
‘If the brutil an’ licentious soldiery av these parts gets sight av the thruck,’ said Mulvaney, making practised investigation, ‘they’ll loot ev’rything. They’re bein’ fed on iron-filin’s an’ dog-biscuit these days, but glory’s no compensation for a belly-ache. Praise be, we’re here to protect you, sorr. Beer, sausage, bread (soft an’ that’s a cur’osity), soup in a tin, whisky by the smell av ut, an’ fowls! Mother av Moses, but ye take the field like a confectioner! ’Tis scand’lus.’
‘Ere’s a orficer,’ said Ortheris significantly. ‘When the sergent’s done lushin’ the privit may clean the pot.’
I bundled several things into Mulvaney’s haversack before the major’s hand fell on my shoulder and he said tenderly, ‘Requisitioned for the Queen’s service. Wolseley was quite wrong about special correspondents: they are the soldier’s best friends. Come and take pot-luck with us to-night.’
And so it happened amid laughter and shoutings that my well-considered commissariat melted away to reappear later at the mess-table, which was a waterproof sheet spread on the ground. The flying column had taken three days’ rations with it, and there be few things nastier than Government rations—especially when Government is experimenting with German toys. Erbswurst, tinned beef of surpassing tinniness, compressed vegetables, and meat-biscuits may be nourishing, but what Thomas Atkins needs is bulk in his inside. The major, assisted by his brother officers, purchased goats for the camp, and so made the experiment of no effect. Long before the fatigue-party sent to collect brushwood had returned, the men were settled down by their valises, kettles and pots had appeared from the surrounding country, and were dangling over fires as the kid and the compressed vegetable bubbled together; there rose a cheerful clinking of mess-tins; outrageous demands for ‘a little more stuffin’ with that there liver-wing;’ and gust on gust of chaff as pointed as a bayonet and as delicate as a gun-butt.
‘The boys are in a good temper,’ said the major. ‘They’ll be singing presently. Well, a night like this is enough to keep them happy.’
Over our heads burned the wonderful Indian stars, which are not all pricked in on one plane, but, preserving an orderly perspective, draw the eye through the velvet darkness of the void up to the barred doors of heaven itself. The earth was a gray shadow more unreal than the sky. We could hear her breathing lightly in the pauses between the howling of the jackals, the movement of the wind in the tamarisks, and the fitful mutter of musketry-fire leagues away to the left. A native woman from some unseen hut began to sing, the mail-train thundered past on its way to Delhi, and a roosting crow cawed drowsily. Then there was a belt-loosening silence about the fires, and the even breathing of the crowded earth took up the story.
The men, full fed, turned to tobacco and song,—their officers with them. The subaltern is happy who can win the approval of the musical critics in his regiment, and is honoured among the more intricate step-dancers. By him, as by him who plays cricket cleverly, Thomas Atkins will stand in time of need, when he will let a better officer go on alone. The ruined tombs of forgotten Mussulman saints heard the ballad of Agra Town, The Buffalo Battery, Marching to Kabul, The long, long Indian Day, The Place where the Punkah-coolie died, and that crashing chorus which announces,
Youth’s daring spirit, manhood’s fire,
Firm hand and eagle eye,
Must he acquire, who would aspire
To see the gray boar die.
To-day, of all those jovial thieves who appropriated my commissariat and lay and laughed round that waterproof sheet, not one remains. They went to camps that were not of exercise and battles without umpires. Burmah, the Soudan, and the frontier,—fever and fight,—took them in their time.
I drifted across to the men’s fires in search of Mulvaney, whom I found strategically greasing his feet by the blaze. There is nothing particularly lovely in the sight of a private thus engaged after a long day’s march, but when you reflect on the exact proportion of the ‘might, majesty, dominion, and power’ of the British Empire which stands on those feet you take an interest in the proceedings.
‘There’s a blister, bad luck to ut, on the heel,’ said Mulvaney. ‘I can’t touch ut. Prick ut out, little man.’
Ortheris took out his house-wife, eased the trouble with a needle, stabbed Mulvaney in the calf with the same weapon, and was swiftly kicked into the fire.
‘I’ve bruk the best av my toes over you, ye grinnin’ child av disruption,’ said Mulvaney, sitting cross- legged and nursing his feet; then seeing me, ‘Oh, ut’s you, sorr! Be welkim, an’ take that maraudin’ scutt’s place. Jock, hold him down on the cindhers for a bit.’
But Ortheris escaped and went elsewhere, as I took possession of the hollow he had scraped for himself and lined with his greatcoat. Learoyd on the other side of the fire grinned affably and in a minute fell fast asleep.
‘There’s the height av politeness for you,’ said Mulvaney, lighting his pipe with a flaming branch. ‘But Jock’s eaten half a box av your sardines at wan gulp, an’ I think the tin too. What’s the best wid you, sorr, an’ how did you happen to be on the losin’ side this day whin we captured you?’
‘The Army of the South is winning all along the line,’ I said.
‘Then that line’s the hangman’s rope, savin’ your presence. You’ll learn to-morrow how we rethreated to dhraw thim on before we made thim trouble, an’ that’s what a woman does. By the same tokin, we’ll be attacked before the dawnin’ an’ ut would be betther not to slip your boots. How do I know that? By the light av pure reason. Here are three companies av us ever so far inside av the enemy’s flank an’ a crowd av roarin’, tarin’, squealin’ cavalry gone on just to turn out the whole hornet’s nest av them. Av course the enemy will pursue, by brigades like as not, an’ thin we’ll have to run for ut. Mark my words. I am av the opinion av Polonius whin he said, “Don’t fight wid ivry scutt for the pure joy av fightin’, but if you do, knock the nose av him first an’ frequint.” We ought to ha’ gone on an’ helped the Ghoorkhas.’
‘But what do you know about Polonius?’ I demanded. This was a new side of Mulvaney’s character.
‘All that Shakespeare iver wrote an’ a dale more that the gallery shouted,’ said the man of war, carefully lacing his boots. ‘Did I not tell you av Silver’s theatre in Dublin whin I was younger than I am now an’ a patron av the drama? Ould Silver wud never pay actor—man or woman their just dues, an’ by consequince his comp’nies was collapsible at the last minut. Thin the bhoys wud clamour to take a part, an’ oft as not ould Silver made them pay for the fun. Faith, I’ve seen Hamlut played wid a new black eye an’ the queen as full as a cornucopia. I remimber wanst Hogin that ’listed in the Black Tyrone an’ was shot in South Africa, he sejuced ould Silver into givin’ him Hamlut’s part instid av me that had a fine fancy for rhetoric in those days. Av course I wint into the gallery an’ began to fill the pit wid other people’s hats, an’ I passed the time av day to Hogin walkin’ through Denmark like a hamstrung mule wid a pall on his back. “Hamlut,” sez I, “there’s a hole in your heel. Pull up your shtockin’s, Hamlut,” sez I. “Hamlut, Hamlut, for the love av decincy dhrop that skull an’ pull up your shtockin’s.” The whole house begun to tell him that. He stopped his soliloquishms mid-between. “My shtockin’s may be comin’ down or they may not,” sez he, screwin’ his eye into the gallery, for well he knew who I was. “But afther this performince is over me an’ the Ghost’ll trample the tripes out av you, Terence, wid your ass’s bray!” An’ that’s how I come to know about Hamlut. Eyah! Those days, those days! Did you iver have onendin’ devilmint an’ nothin’ to pay for it in your life, sorr?’
‘Never, without having to pay,’ I said.
‘That’s thrue! ’Tis mane whin you considher on ut; but ut’s the same wid horse or fut. A headache if you dhrink, an’ a belly-ache if you eat too much, an’ a heart-ache to kape all down. Faith, the beast only gets the colic, an’ he’s the lucky man.’
He dropped his head and stared into the fire, fingering his moustache the while. From the far side of the bivouac the voice of Corbet-Nolan, senior subaltern of B company, uplifted itself in an ancient and much appreciated song of sentiment, the men moaning melodiously behind him.
The north wind blew coldly, she drooped from that hour,
My own little Kathleen, my sweet little Kathleen,
Kathleen, my Kathleen, Kathleen O’Moore!
With forty-five O’s in the last word: even at that distance you might have cut the soft South Irish accent with a shovel.
‘For all we take we must pay, but the price is cruel high,’ murmured Mulvaney when the chorus had ceased.
‘What’s the trouble?’ I said gently, for I knew that he was a man of an inextinguishable sorrow.
‘Hear now,’ said he. ‘Ye know what I am now. I know what I mint to be at the beginnin’ av my service. I’ve tould you time an’ again, an’ what I have not Dinah Shadd has. An’ what am I? Oh, Mary Mother av Hiven, an ould dhrunken, untrustable baste av a privit that has seen the reg’ment change out from colonel to drummer-boy, not wanst or twice, but scores av times! Ay, scores! An’ me not so near gettin’ promotion as in the first! An’ me livin’ on an’ kapin’ clear av clink, not by my own good conduck, but the kindness av some orf’cer-bhoy young enough to be son to me? Do I not know ut? Can I not tell whin I’m passed over at p’rade, tho’ I’m rockin’ full av liquor an’ ready to fall all in wan piece, such as even a suckin’ child might see, bekaze, “Oh, ’tis only ould Mulvaney!” An’ whin I’m let off in ord’ly-room through some thrick of the tongue an’ a ready answer an’ the ould man’s mercy, is ut smilin’ I feel whin I fall away an’ go back to Dinah Shadd, thryin’ to carry ut all off as a joke? Not I! ’Tis hell to me, dumb hell through ut all; an’ next time whin the fit comes I will be as bad again. Good cause the reg’ment has to know me for the best soldier in ut. Better cause have I to know mesilf for the worst man. I’m only fit to tache the new drafts what I’ll niver learn myself; an’ I am sure, as tho’ I heard ut, that the minut wan av these pink-eyed recruities gets away from my “Mind ye now,” an’ “Listen to this, Jim, bhoy,”—sure I am that the sergint houlds me up to him for a warnin’. So I tache, as they say at musketry-instruction, by direct and ricochet fire. Lord be good to me, for I have stud some throuble!’
‘Lie down and go to sleep,’ said I, not being able to comfort or advise. ‘You’re the best man in the regiment, and, next to Ortheris, the biggest fool. Lie down and wait till we’re attacked. What force will they turn out? Guns, think you?’
‘Try that wid your lorrds an’ ladies, twistin’ an turnin’ the talk, tho’ you mint ut well. Ye cud say nothin’ to help me, an’ yet ye niver knew what cause I had to be what I am.’
‘Begin at the beginning and go on to the end,’ I said royally. ‘But rake up the fire a bit first.’
I passed Ortheris’s bayonet for a poker.
‘That shows how little we know what we do,’ said Mulvaney, putting it aside. ‘Fire takes all the heart out av the steel, an’ the next time, may be, that our little man is fighting for his life his bradawl’ll break, an’ so you’ll ha’ killed him, manin’ no more than to kape yourself warm. ’Tis a recruity’s thrick that. Pass the clanin’-rod, sorr.’
I snuggled down abashed; and after an interval the voice of Mulvaney began.
‘Did I iver tell you how Dinah Shadd came to be wife av mine?’
I dissembled a burning anxiety that I had felt for some months—ever since Dinah Shadd, the strong, the patient, and the infinitely tender, had of her own good love and free will washed a shirt for me, moving in a barren land where washing was not.
‘I can’t remember,’ I said casually. ‘Was it before or after you made love to Annie Bragin, and got no satisfaction?’
The story of Annie Bragin is written in another place. It is one of the many less respectable episodes in Mulvaney’s chequered career.
‘Before—before—long before, was that business av Annie Bragin an’ the corp’ril’s ghost. Niver woman was the worse for me whin I had married Dinah. There’s a time for all things, an’ I know how to kape all things in place—barrin’ the dhrink, that kapes me in my place wid no hope av comin’ to be aught else.’
‘Begin at the beginning,’ I insisted. ‘Mrs. Mulvaney told me that you married her when you were quartered in Krab Bokhar barracks.’
‘An’ the same is a cess-pit,’ said Mulvaney piously. ‘She spoke thrue, did Dinah. ’Twas this way. Talkin’ av that, have ye iver fallen in love, sorr?’
I preserved the silence of the damned. Mulvaney continued—
‘Thin I will assume that ye have not. I did. In the days av my youth, as I have more than wanst tould you, I was a man that filled the eye an’ delighted the sowl av women. Niver man was hated as I have bin. Niver man was loved as I—no, not within half a day’s march av ut! For the first five years av my service, whin I was what I wud give my sowl to be now, I tuk whatever was within my reach an’ digested ut—an’ that’s more than most men can say. Dhrink I tuk, an’ ut did me no harm. By the Hollow av Hiven, I cud play wid four women at wanst, an’ kape them from findin’ out anythin’ about the other three, an’ smile like a full-blown marigold through ut all. Dick Coulhan, av the battery we’ll have down on us to-night, could drive his team no better than I mine, an’ I hild the worser cattle! An’ so I lived, an’ so I was happy till afther that business wid Annie Bragin—she that turned me off as cool as a meat-safe, an’ taught me where I stud in the mind av an honest woman. ’Twas no sweet dose to swallow.
‘Afther that I sickened awhile an’ tuk thought to my reg’mental work; conceiting mesilf I wud study an’ be a sargint, an’ a major-gineral twinty minutes afther that. But on top av my ambitiousness there was an empty place in my sowl, an’ me own opinion av mesilf cud not fill ut. Sez I to mesilf, “Terence, you’re a great man an’ the best set-up in the reg’mint. Go on an’ get promotion.” Sez mesilf to me, “What for?” Sez I to mesilf, “For the glory av ut!” Sez mesilf to me, “Will that fill these two strong arrums av yours, Terence?”—“Go to the devil,” sez I to mesilf. “Go to the married lines,” sez mesilf to me. “’Tis the same thing,” sez I to mesilf. “Av you’re the same man, ut is,” said mesilf to me; an’ wid that I considhered on ut a long while. Did you iver feel that way, sorr?’
I snored gently, knowing that if Mulvaney were uninterrupted he would go on. The clamour from the bivouac fires beat up to the stars, as the rival singers of the companies were pitted against each other.
‘So I felt that way an’ a bad time ut was. Wanst, bein’ a fool, I wint into the married lines more for the sake av spakin’ to our ould colour-sergint Shadd than for any thruck wid women-folk. I was a corp’ril then—rejuced aftherwards, but a corp’ril then. I’ve got a photograft av mesilf to prove ut. “You’ll take a cup av tay wid us?” sez Shadd. “I will that,” I sez, “tho’ tay is not my divarsion.”
“‘’Twud be better for you if ut were,” sez ould Mother Shadd, an’ she had ought to know, for Shadd, in the ind av his service, dhrank bungfull each night.
‘Wid that I tuk off my gloves—there was pipeclay in thim, so that they stud alone—an’ pulled up my chair, lookin’ round at the china ornaments an’ bits av things in the Shadds’ quarters. They were things that belonged to a man, an’ no camp-kit, here to-day an’ dishipated next. “You’re comfortable in this place, sergint,” sez I. “’Tis the wife that did ut, boy,” sez he, pointin’ the stem av his pipe to ould Mother Shadd, an’ she smacked the top av his bald head apon the compliment. “That manes you want money,” sez she.
‘An’ thin—an’ thin whin the kettle was to be filled, Dinah came in—my Dinah—her sleeves rowled up to the elbow an’ her hair in a winkin’ glory over her forehead, the big blue eyes beneath twinklin’ like stars on a frosty night, an’ the tread av her two feet lighter than waste-paper from the colonel’s basket in ord’ly-room whin ut’s emptied. Bein’ but a shlip av a girl she went pink at seein’ me, an’ I twisted me moustache an’ looked at a picture forninst the wall. Niver show a woman that ye care the snap av a finger for her, an’ begad she’ll come bleatin’ to your boot-heels!’
‘I suppose that’s why you followed Annie Bragin till everybody in the married quarters laughed at you,’ said I, remembering that unhallowed wooing and casting off the disguise of drowsiness.
‘I’m layin’ down the gin’ral theory av the attack,’ said Mulvaney, driving his boot into the dying fire. ‘If you read the Soldier’s Pocket Book, which niver any soldier reads, you’ll see that there are exceptions. Whin Dinah was out av the door (an’ ’twas as tho’ the sunlight had shut too)—“Mother av Hiven, sergint,” sez I, “but is that your daughter?”—“I’ve believed that way these eighteen years,” sez ould Shadd, his eyes twinklin’; “but Mrs. Shadd has her own opinion, like iv’ry woman.”—“’Tis wid yours this time, for a mericle,” sez Mother Shadd. “Thin why in the name av fortune did I niver see her before?” sez I. “Bekaze you’ve been thrapesin’ round wid the married women these three years past. She was a bit av a child till last year, an’ she shot up wid the spring,” sez ould Mother Shadd. “I’ll thrapese no more,” sez I. “D’you mane that?” sez ould Mother Shadd, lookin’ at me side-ways like a hen looks at a hawk whin the chickens are runnin’ free. “Try me, an’ tell,” sez I. Wid that I pulled on my gloves, dhrank off the tay, an’ went out av the house as stiff as at gin’ral p’rade, for well I knew that Dinah Shadd’s eyes were in the small av my back out av the scullery window. Faith! that was the only time I mourned I was not a cav’l’ry man for the pride av the spurs to jingle.
‘I wint out to think, an’ I did a powerful lot av thinkin’, but ut all came round to that shlip av a girl in the dotted blue dhress, wid the blue eyes an’ the sparkil in them. Thin I kept off canteen, an’ I kept to the married quarthers, or near by, on the chanst av meetin’ Dinah. Did I meet her? Oh, my time past, did I not; wid a lump in my throat as big as my valise an’ my heart goin’ like a farrier’s forge on a Saturday morning? ’Twas “Good day to ye, Miss Dinah,” an “Good day t’you, corp’ril,” for a week or two, and divil a bit further could I get bekaze av the respect I had to that girl that I cud ha’ broken betune finger an’ thumb.’
Here I giggled as I recalled the gigantic figure of Dinah Shadd when she handed me my shirt.
‘Ye may laugh,’ grunted Mulvaney. ‘But I’m speakin’ the trut’, an’ ’tis you that are in fault. Dinah was a girl that wud ha’ taken the imperiousness out av the Duchess av Clonmel in those days. Flower hand, foot av shod air, an’ the eyes av the livin’ mornin’ she had that is my wife to-day—ould Dinah, and niver aught else than Dinah Shadd to me.
‘’Twas after three weeks standin’ off an’ on, an’ niver makin’ headway excipt through the eyes, that a little drummer-boy grinned in me face whin I had admonished him wid the buckle av my belt for riotin’ all over the place. “An’ I’m not the only wan that doesn’t kape to barricks,” sez he. I tuk him by the scruff av his neck,—my heart was hung on a hair-thrigger those days, you will onderstand—an’ “Out wid ut,” sez I, “or I’ll lave no bone av you unbreakable.”—“Speak to Dempsey,” sez he howlin.’ “Dempsey which?” sez I, “ye unwashed limb av Satan.”—“Av the Bob-tailed Dhragoons,” sez he. “He’s seen her home from her aunt’s house in the civil lines four times this fortnight.”—“Child!” sez I, dhroppin’ him, “your tongue’s stronger than your body. Go to your quarters. I’m sorry I dhressed you down.”
‘At that I went four ways to wanst huntin’ Dempsey. I was mad to think that wid all my airs among women I shud ha’ been chated by a basin-faced fool av a cav’lryman not fit to trust on a trunk. Presintly I found him in our lines—the Bobtails was quartered next us—an’ a tallowy, topheavy son av a she-mule he was wid his big brass spurs an’ his plastrons on his epigastrons an’ all. But he niver flinched a hair.
‘“A word wid you, Dempsey,” sez I. “You’ve walked wid Dinah Shadd four times this fortnight gone.”
‘“What’s that to you?” sez he. “I’ll walk forty times more, an’ forty on top av that, ye shovel-futted clod-breakin’ infantry lance-corp’ril.”
‘Before I cud gyard he had his gloved fist home on my cheek an’ down I went full-sprawl. “Will that content you?” sez he, blowin’ on his knuckles for all the world like a Scots Greys orf’cer. “Content!” sez I. “For your own sake, man, take off your spurs, peel your jackut, an’ onglove. ’Tis the beginnin’ av the overture; stand up!”
‘He stud all he know, but he niver peeled his jacket, an’ his shoulders had no fair play. I was fightin’ for Dinah Shadd an’ that cut on my cheek. What hope had he forninst me? “Stand up,” sez I, time an’ again whin he was beginnin’ to quarter the ground an’ gyard high an’ go large. “This isn’t ridin’-school,” I sez. “O man, stand up an’ let me get in at ye.” But whin I saw he wud be runnin’ about, I grup his shtock in my left an’ his waist-belt in my right an’ swung him clear to my right front, head undher, he hammerin’ my nose till the wind was knocked out av him on the bare ground. “Stand up,” sez I, “or I’ll kick your head into your chest!” and I wud ha’ done ut too, so ragin’ mad I was.
‘ “My collar bone’s bruk,” sez he. “Help me back to lines. I’ll walk wid her no more.” So I helped him back.’
‘And was his collar-bone broken?’ I asked, for I fancied that only Learoyd could neatly accomplish that terrible throw.
‘He pitched on his left shoulder-point. Ut was. Next day the news was in both barricks, an’ whin I met Dinah Shadd wid a cheek on me like all the reg’mintal tailor’s samples there was no “Good mornin’, corp’ril,” or aught else. “An’ what have I done, Miss Shadd,” sez I, very bould, plantin’ mesilf forninst her, “that ye should not pass the time of day?”
‘“Ye’ve half-killed rough-rider Dempsey,” sez she, her dear blue eyes fillin’ up.
‘“May be,” sez I. “Was he a friend av yours that saw ye home four times in the fortnight?”
‘“Yes,” sez she, but her mouth was down at the corners. “An’—an’ what’s that to you?” she sez.
‘“Ask Dempsey,” sez I, purtendin’ to go away.
‘“Did you fight for me then, ye silly man?” she sez, tho’ she knew ut all along.
‘“Who else?” sez I, an’ I tuk wan pace to the front.
‘“I wasn’t worth ut,” sez she, fingerin’ in her apron.
‘“That’s for me to say,” sez I. “Shall I say ut?”
‘“Yes,” sez she in a saint’s whisper, an’ at that I explained mesilf; and she tould me what ivry man that is a man, an’ many that is a woman, hears wanst in his life.
‘“But what made ye cry at startin’, Dinah, darlin’?” sez I.
‘“Your—your bloody cheek,” sez she, duckin’ her little head down on my sash (I was on duty for the day) an’ whimperin’ like a sorrowful angil.
‘Now a man cud take that two ways. I tuk ut as pleased me best an’ my first kiss wid ut. Mother av Innocence! but I kissed her on the tip av the nose an’ undher the eye; an’ a girl that lets a kiss come tumbleways like that has never been kissed before. Take note av that, sorr. Thin we wint hand in hand to ould Mother Shadd like two little childher, an’ she said ’twas no bad thing, an’ ould Shadd nodded behind his pipe, an’ Dinah ran away to her own room. That day I throd on rollin’ clouds. All earth was too small to hould me. Begad, I cud ha’ hiked the sun out av the sky for a live coal to my pipe, so magnificent I was. But I tuk recruities at squad-drill instid, an’ began wid general battalion advance whin I shud ha’ been balance-steppin’ them. Eyah! that day! that day!’
A very long pause. ‘Well?’ said I.
‘’Twas all wrong,’ said Mulvaney, with an enormous sigh. ‘An’ I know that ev’ry bit av ut was my own foolishness. That night I tuk maybe the half av three pints—not enough to turn the hair of a man in his natural senses. But I was more than half drunk wid pure joy, an’ that canteen beer was so much whisky to me. I can’t tell how it came about, but bekaze I had no thought for anywan except Dinah, bekaze I hadn’t slipped her little white arms from my neck five minuts, bekaze the breath of her kiss was not gone from my mouth, I must go through the married lines on my way to quarters, an’ I must stay talkin’ to a red-headed Mullingar heifer av a girl, Judy Sheehy, that was daughter to Mother Sheehy, the wife of Nick Sheehy, the canteen-sergint—the Black Curse av Shielygh be on the whole brood that are above groun’ this day!
‘“An’ what are ye houldin’ your head that high for, corp’ril?” sez Judy. “Come in an’ thry a cup av tay,” she sez, standin’ in the doorway. Bein’ an ontrustable fool, an’ thinkin’ av anything but tay, I wint.
‘“Mother’s at canteen,” sez Judy, smoothin’ the hair av hers that was like red snakes, an’ lookin’ at me corner-ways out av her green cats’ eyes. “Ye will not mind, corp’ril?”
‘“I can endure,” sez I; ould Mother Sheehy bein’ no divarsion av mine, nor her daughter too. Judy fetched the tea things an’ put thim on the table, leanin’ over me very close to get thim square. I dhrew back, thinkin’ av Dinah.
‘“Is ut afraid you are av a girl alone?” sez Judy.
‘“No,” sez I. “Why should I be?”
‘“That rests wid the girl,” sez Judy, dhrawin’ her chair next to mine.
‘“Thin there let ut rest,” sez I; an’ thinkin’ I’d been a trifle onpolite, I sez, “The tay’s not quite sweet enough for my taste. Put your little finger in the cup, Judy. ’Twill make ut necthar.”
‘“What’s necthar?” sez she.
‘“Somethin’ very sweet,” sez I; an’ for the sinful life av me I cud not help lookin’ at her out av the corner av my eye, as I was used to look at a woman.
‘“Go on wid ye, corp’ril,” sez she. “You’re a flirrt.”
‘“On me sowl I’m not,” sez I.
‘“Then you’re a cruel handsome man, an’ that’s worse,” sez she, heaving big sighs an’ lookin’ crossways.
‘“You know your own mind,” sez I.
‘“’Twud be better for me if I did not,” she sez.
‘“There’s a dale to be said on both sides av that,” sez I, unthinkin’.
‘“Say your own part av ut, then, Terence, darlin’,” sez she; “for begad I’m thinkin’ I’ve said too much or too little for an honest girl,” an’ wid that she put her arms round my neck an’ kissed me.
‘“There’s no more to be said afther that,” sez I, kissin’ her back again—Oh the mane scutt that I was, my head ringin’ wid Dinah Shadd! How does ut come about, sorr, that when a man has put the comether on wan woman, he’s sure bound to put it on another? ’Tis the same thing at musketry. Wan day ivry shot goes wide or into the bank, an’ the next, lay high lay low, sight or snap, ye can’t get off the bull’s-eye for ten shots runnin’.’
‘That only happens to a man who has had a good deal of experience. He does it without thinking,’ I replied.
‘Thankin’ you for the complimint, sorr, ut may be so. But I’m doubtful whether you mint ut for a complimint. Hear now; I sat there wid Judy on my knee tellin’ me all manner av nonsinse an’ only sayin’ “yes” an’ “no,” when I’d much better ha’ kept tongue betune teeth. An’ that was not an hour afther I had left Dinah! What I was thinkin’ av I cannot say. Presintly, quiet as a cat, ould Mother Sheehy came in velvet-dhrunk. She had her daughter’s red hair, but ’twas bald in patches, an’ I cud see in her wicked ould face, clear as lightnin’, what Judy wud be twenty years to come. I was for jumpin’ up, but Judy niver moved.
‘“Terence has promust, mother,” sez she, an’ the could sweat bruk out all over me. Ould Mother Sheehy sat down of a heap an’ began playin’ wid the cups. “Thin you’re a well-matched pair,” she sez very thick. “For he’s the biggest rogue that iver spoiled the Queen’s shoe-leather,” an’—
‘“I’m off, Judy,” sez I. “Ye should not talk nonsinse to your mother. Get her to bed, girl.”
‘“Nonsinse!” sez the ould woman, prickin’ up her ears like a cat an’ grippin’ the table-edge. “’Twill be the most nonsinsical nonsinse for you, ye grinnin’ badger, if nonsinse ’tis. Git clear, you. I’m goin’ to bed.”
‘I ran out into the dhark, my head in a stew an’ my heart sick, but I had sinse enough to see that I’d brought ut all on mysilf. “It’s this to pass the time av day to a panjandhrum av hellcats,” sez I. “What I’ve said, an’ what I’ve not said do not matther. Judy an’ her dam will hould me for a promust man, an’ Dinah will give me the go, an’ I desarve ut. I will go an’ get dhrunk,” sez I, “an’ forget about ut, for ’tis plain I’m not a marrin’ man.”
‘On my way to canteen I ran against Lascelles, colour-sergeant that was av E Comp’ny, a hard, hard man, wid a torment av a wife. “You’ve the head av a drowned man on your shoulders,” sez he; “an’ you’re goin’ where you’ll get a worse wan. Come back,” sez he. “Let me go,” sez I. “I’ve thrown my luck over the wall wid my own hand!”—“Then that’s not the way to get ut back again,” sez he. “Have out wid your throuble, ye fool-bhoy.” An’ I tould him how the matther was.
‘He sucked in his lower lip. “You’ve been thrapped,” sez he. “Ju Sheehy wud be the betther for a man’s name to hers as soon as can. An’ ye thought ye’d put the comether on her,—that’s the natural vanity of the baste. Terence, you’re a big born fool, but you’re not bad enough to marry into that comp’ny. If you said anythin’, an’ for all your protestations I’m sure ye did—or did not, which is worse,—eat ut all—lie like the father of all lies, but come out av ut free av Judy. Do I not know what ut is to marry a woman that was the very spit an’ image av Judy whin she was young? I’m gettin’ old an’ I’ve larnt patience, but you, Terence, you’d raise hand on Judy an’ kill her in a year. Never mind if Dinah gives you the go, you’ve desarved ut; never mind if the whole reg’mint laughs you all day. Get shut av Judy an’ her mother. They can’t dhrag you to church, but if they do, they’ll dhrag you to hell. Go back to your quarters and lie down,” sez he. Thin over his shoulder, “You must ha’ done with thim.”
‘Next day I wint to see Dinah, but there was no tucker in me as I walked. I knew the throuble wud come soon enough widout any handlin’ av mine, an’ I dreaded ut sore.
‘“I heard Judy callin’ me, but I hild straight on to the Shadds’ quarthers, an’ Dinah wud ha’ kissed me but I put her back.
‘“Whin all’s said, darlin’,” sez I, “you can give ut me if ye will, tho’ I misdoubt ’twill be so easy to come by then.”
‘I had scarce begun to put the explanation into shape before Judy an’ her mother came to the door. I think there was a verandah, but I’m forgettin.’
‘“Will ye not step in?” sez Dinah, pretty and polite, though the Shadds had no dealin’s with the Sheehys. Old Mother Shadd looked up quick, an’ she was the fust to see the throuble; for Dinah was her daughter.
‘“I’m pressed for time to-day,” sez Judy as bould as brass; “an’ I’ve only come for Terence,—my promust man. ’Tis strange to find him here the day afther the day.”
‘Dinah looked at me as though I had hit her, an’ I answered straight.
‘“There was some nonsinse last night at the Sheehys’ quarthers, an’ Judy’s carryin’ on the joke, darlin’,” sez I.
‘“At the Sheehys’ quarthers?” sez Dinah very slow, an’ Judy cut in wid: “He was there from nine till ten, Dinah Shadd, an’ the betther half av that time I was sittin’ on his knee, Dinah Shadd. Ye may look and ye may look an’ ye may look me up an’ down, but ye won’t look away that Terence is my promust man. Terence, darlin’, ’tis time for us to be comin’ home.”
‘Dinah Shadd niver said word to Judy. “Ye left me at half-past eight,” she sez to me, “an’ I niver thought that ye’d leave me for Judy,—promises or no promises. Go back wid her, you that have to be fetched by a girl! I’m done with you,” sez she, and she ran into her own room, her mother followin’. So I was alone wid those two women and at liberty to spake my sentiments.”
‘“Judy Sheehy,” sez I, “if you made a fool av me betune the lights you shall not do ut in the day. I niver promised you words or lines.”
‘“You lie,” sez ould Mother Sheehy, “an’ may ut choke you where you stand!” She was far gone in dhrink.
‘“An’ tho’ ut choked me where I stud I’d not change,” sez I. “Go home, Judy. I take shame for a decent girl like you dhraggin’ your mother out bare-headed on this errand. Hear now, and have ut for an answer. I gave my word to Dinah Shadd yesterday, an’, more blame to me, I was wid you last night talkin’ nonsinse but nothin’ more. You’ve chosen to thry to hould me on ut. I will not be held thereby for anythin’ in the world. Is that enough?”
‘Judy wint pink all over. “An’ I wish you joy av the perjury,” sez she, duckin’ a curtsey. “You’ve lost a woman that would ha’ wore her hand to the bone for your pleasure; an’ ’deed, Terence, ye were not thrapped.…” Lascelles must ha’ spoken plain to her. “I am such as Dinah is—’deed I am! Ye’ve lost a fool av a girl that’ll niver look at you again, an’ ye’ve lost what ye niver had,—your common honesty. If you manage your men as you manage your love-makin’, small wondher they call you the worst corp’ril in the comp’ny. Come away, mother,” sez she.
‘But divil a fut would the ould woman budge! “D’you hould by that?” sez she, peerin’ up under her thick gray eyebrows.
‘“Ay, an’ wud,” sez I, “tho’ Dinah gave me the go twinty times. I’ll have no thruck with you or yours,” sez I. “Take your child away, ye shameless woman.”
‘“An’ am I shameless?” sez she, bringin’ her hands up above her head. “Thin what are you, ye lyin’, schamin’, weak-kneed, dhirty-souled son av a sutler? Am I shameless? Who put the open shame on me an’ my child that we shud go beggin’ through the lines in the broad daylight for the broken word of a man? Double portion of my shame be on you, Terence Mulvaney, that think yourself so strong! By Mary and the saints, by blood and water an’ by ivry sorrow that came into the world since the beginnin’, the black blight fall on you and yours, so that you may niver be free from pain for another when ut’s not your own! May your heart bleed in your breast drop by drop wid all your friends laughin’ at the bleedin’! Strong you think yourself? May your strength be a curse to you to dhrive you into the divil’s hands against your own will! Clear-eyed you are? May your eyes see clear evry step av the dark path you take till the hot cindhers av hell put thim out! May the ragin’ dry thirst in my own ould bones go to you that you shall niver pass bottle full nor glass empty. God preserve the light av your onderstandin’ to you, my jewel av a bhoy, that ye may niver forget what you mint to be an’ do, whin you’re wallowin’ in the muck! May ye see the betther and follow the worse as long as there’s breath in your body; an’ may ye die quick in a strange land, watchin’ your death before ut takes you, an’ onable to stir hand or foot!”
‘I heard a scufflin’ in the room behind, and thin Dinah Shadd’s hand dhropped into mine like a rose-leaf into a muddy road.
‘“The half av that I’ll take,” sez she, “an’ more too if I can. Go home, ye silly talkin’ woman,—go home an’ confess.”
‘“Come away! Come away!” sez Judy, pullin’ her mother by the shawl. “’Twas none av Terence’s fault. For the love av Mary stop the talkin’!”
‘“An’ you!” said ould Mother Sheehy, spinnin’ round forninst Dinah. “Will ye take the half av that man’s load? Stand off from him, Dinah Shadd, before he takes you down too—you that look to be a quarther-master-sergeant’s wife in five years. You look too high, child. You shall wash for the quarther-master-sergeant, whin he plases to give you the job out av charity; but a privit’s wife you shall be to the end, an’ evry sorrow of a privit’s wife you shall know and niver a joy but wan, that shall go from you like the running tide from a rock. The pain av bearin’ you shall know but niver the pleasure av giving the breast; an’ you shall put away a man-child into the common ground wid niver a priest to say a prayer over him, an’ on that man-child ye shall think ivry day av your life. Think long, Dinah Shadd, for you’ll niver have another tho’ you pray till your knees are bleedin’. The mothers av childer shall mock you behind your back when you’re wringing over the wash-tub. You shall know what ut is to help a dhrunken husband home an’ see him go to the gyard-room. Will that plase you, Dinah Shadd, that won’t be seen talkin’ to my daughter? You shall talk to worse than Judy before all’s over. The sergints’ wives shall look down on you contemptuous, daughter av a sergint, an’ you shall cover ut all up wid a smiling face whin your heart’s burstin’. Stand off av him, Dinah Shadd, for I’ve put the Black Curse of Shielygh upon him an’ his own mouth shall make ut good.”
‘She pitched forward on her head an’ began foamin’ at the mouth. Dinah Shadd ran out wid water, an’ Judy dhragged the ould woman into the verandah till she sat up.
‘“I’m old an’ forlore,” she sez, thremblin’ an’ cryin’, “and ’tis like I say a dale more than I mane.”
‘“When you’re able to walk,—go,” says ould Mother Shadd. “This house has no place for the likes av you that have cursed my daughter.”
‘“Eyah!” said the ould woman. “Hard words break no bones, an’ Dinah Shadd ’ll kape the love av her husband till my bones are green corn. Judy darlin’, I misremember what I came here for. Can you lend us the bottom av a taycup av tay, Mrs. Shadd?”
‘But Judy dhragged her off cryin’ as tho’ her heart wud break. An’ Dinah Shadd an’ I, in ten minutes we had forgot ut all.’
‘Then why do you remember it now?’ said I.
‘Is ut like I’d forget? Ivry word that wicked ould woman spoke fell thrue in my life aftherwards, an’ I cud ha’ stud ut all—stud ut all,—excipt when my little Shadd was born. That was on the line av march three months afther the regiment was taken with cholera. We were betune Umballa an’ Kalka thin, an’ I was on picket. Whin I came off duty the women showed me the child, an’ ut turned on uts side an’ died as I looked. We buried him by the road, an’ Father Victor was a day’s march behind wid the heavy baggage, so the comp’ny captain read a prayer. An’ since then I’ve been a childless man, an’ all else that ould Mother Sheehy put upon me an’ Dinah Shadd. What do you think, sorr?’
I thought a good deal, but it seemed better then to reach out for Mulvaney’s hand. The demonstration nearly cost me the use of three fingers. Whatever he knows of his weaknesses, Mulvaney is entirely ignorant of his strength.
‘But what do you think?’ he repeated, as I was straightening out the crushed fingers.
My reply was drowned in yells and outcries from the next fire, where ten men were shouting for ‘Orth’ris,’ ‘Privit Orth’ris,’ ‘Mistah Or—ther—ris!’ ‘Deah boy,’ ‘Cap’n Orth’ris,’ ‘Field-Marshal Orth’ris,’ ‘Stanley, you pen’north o’ pop, come ’ere to your own comp’ny!’ And the cockney, who had been delighting another audience with recondite and Rabelaisian yarns, was shot down among his admirers by the major force.
‘You’ve crumpled my dress-shirt ’orrid,’ said he, ‘an’ I shan’t sing no more to this ’ere bloomin’ drawin’-room.’
Learoyd, roused by the confusion, uncoiled himself, crept behind Ortheris, and slung him aloft on his shoulders.
‘Sing, ye bloomin’ hummin’ bird!’ said he, and Ortheris, beating time on Learoyd’s skull, delivered himself, in the raucous voice of the Ratcliffe Highway, of this song:—
My girl she give me the go onst,
When I was a London lad,
An’ I went on the drink for a fortnight,
An’ then I went to the bad.
The Queen she give me a shillin’
To fight for ’er over the seas;
But Guv’ment built me a fever-trap,
An’ Injia give me disease.
Ho! don’t you ’eed what a girl says,
An’ don’t you go for the beer;
But I was an ass when I was at grass,
An’ that is why I’m here.
I fired a shot at a Afghan,
The beggar ’e fired again,
An’ I lay on my bed with a ’ole in my ’ed,
An’ missed the next campaign!
I up with my gun at a Burman
Who carried a bloomin’ dab,
But the cartridge stuck and the bay’nit bruk,
An’ all I got was the scar.
Ho! don’t you aim at a Afghan,
When you stand on the sky-line clear;
An’ don’t you go for a Burman
If none o’ your friends is near.
I served my time for a corp’ral,
An’ wetted my stripes with pop,
For I went on the bend with a intimate friend,
An’ finished the night in the ‘shop.’
I served my time for a sergeant;
The colonel ’e sez ‘No!
The most you’ll see is a full C.B.’
An’…very next night ’twas so.
Ho! don’t you go for a corp’ral
Unless your ’ed is clear;
But I was an ass when I was at grass,
An’ that is why I’m ’ere.
I’ve tasted the luck o’ the army
In barrack an’ camp an’ clink,
An’ I lost my tip through the bloomin’ trip
Along o’ the women an’ drink.
I’m down at the heel o’ my service,
An’ when I am laid on the shelf,
My very wust friend from beginning to end
By the blood of a mouse was myself!
Ho! don’t you ’eed what a girl says,
An’ don’t you go for the beer;
But I was an ass when I was at grass
An’ that is why I’m ’ere.
‘Ay, listen to our little man now, singin’ an’ shoutin’ as tho’ trouble had niver touched him. D’ you remember when he went mad with the home-sickness?’ said Mulvaney, recalling a never-to-be-forgotten season when Ortheris waded through the deep waters if affliction and behaved abominably. ‘But he’s talkin’ bitter truth, though. Eyah!
‘My very worst frind from beginnin’ to ind
By the blood av a mouse was mesilf!’
When I woke I saw Mulvaney, the night-dew gemming his moustache, leaning on his rifle at picket, lonely as Prometheus on his rock, with I know not what vultures tearing his liver.