‘MARY, Mother av Mercy, fwhat the divil possist us to take an’ kape this melancolious counthry? Answer me that, sorr.’It was Mulvaney who was speaking. The time was one o’clock of a stifling June night, and the place was the main gate of Fort Amara, most desolate and least desirable of all fortresses in India. What I was doing there at that hour is a question which only concerns M’Grath the Sergeant of the Guard, and the men on the gate.
‘Slape,’ said Mulvaney, ‘is a shuparfluous necessity. This Gyard’ll shtay lively till relieved.’ He himself was stripped to the waist; Learoyd on the next bedstead was dripping from the skinful of water which Ortheris, clad only in white trousers, had just sluiced over his shoulders; and a fourth private was muttering uneasily as he dozed open-mouthed in the glare of the great guard-lantern. The heat under the bricked archway was terrifying.
‘The worrst night that iver I remimber. Eyah! Is all Hell loose this tide?’said Mulvaney. A puff of burning wind lashed through the wicket-gate like a wave of the sea, and Ortheris swore.
‘Are ye more heasy, Jock?’ he said to Learoyd. ‘Put yer ’ead between your legs. It’ll go orf in a minute.’
‘Ah doan’t care. Ah would not care, but ma heart is plaayin’ tivvy-tivvy on ma ribs. Let ma die! Oh, leave ma die!’ groaned the huge Yorkshireman, who was feeling the heat acutely, being of fleshy build.
The sleeper under the lantern roused for a moment and raised himself on his elbow. ‘Die and be damned then!’ he said. ‘I’m damned and I can’t die!’
‘Who’s that?’ I whispered, for the voice was new to me.
‘Gentleman born,’ said Mulvaney; ‘Corp’ril wan year, Sargint nex’. Red-hot on his C’mission, but dhrinks like a fish. He’ll be gone before the cowld weather’s here. So!’
He slipped his boot, and with the naked toe just touched the trigger of his Martini. Ortheris misunderstood the movement, and the next instant the Irishman’s rifle was dashed aside, while Ortheris stood before him, his eyes blazing with reproof.
‘You!’ said Ortheris. ‘My Gawd, you! If it was you, wot would we do?’
‘Kape quiet, little man,’ said Mulvaney, putting him aside, but very gently; ‘’Tis not me, nor will ut be me whoile Dinah Shadd’s here. I was but showin’ somethin’.’
Learoyd, bowed on his bedstead, groaned, and the gentleman-ranker sighed in his sleep. Ortheris took Mulvaney’s tendered pouch, and we three smoked gravely for a space while the dust-devils danced on the glacis and scoured the red-hot plain.
‘Pop?’ said Ortheris, wiping his forehead.
‘Don’t tantalise wid talkin’ av dhrink, or I’ll shtuff you into your own breech-block an’—fire you off!’ grunted Mulvaney.
Ortheris chuckled, and from a niche in the veranda produced six bottles of gingerade.
‘Where did ye get ut, ye Machiavel?’ said Mulvaney. ‘’Tis no bazar pop.’
‘’Ow do I know wot the orf’cers drink?’ answered Ortheris. ‘Arst the mess-man.’
‘Ye’ll have a Disthrict Coort-Martial settin’ on ye yet, me son,’ said Mulvaney, ‘but’—he opened a bottle—‘I will not report ye this time. Fwhat’s in the mess-kid is mint for the belly, as they say, ’specially whin that mate is dhrink. Here’s luck! A bloody war or a—no, we’ve got the sickly season. War, thin!’—he waved the innocent ‘pop’ to the four quarters of heaven. ‘Bloody war! North, East, South, an’ West Jock, ye quakin’ hayrick, come an’ dhrink.’
But Learoyd, half mad with the fear of death presaged in the swelling veins of his neck, was begging his Maker to strike him dead, and fighting for more air between his prayers. A second time Ortheris drenched the quivering body with water, and the giant revived.
‘An’ Ah divn’t see thot a mon is i’ fettle for gooin’ on to live; an’ Ah divn’t see thot there is owt for t’ livin’ for. Hear now, lads I Ah’m tired—tired. There’s nobbut watter i’ ma bones. Leave ma die!’
The hollow of the arch gave back Learoyd’s broken whisper in a bass boom. Mulvaney looked at me hopelessly, but I remembered how the madness of despair had once fallen upon Ortheris, that weary, weary afternoon on the banks of the Khemi River, and how it had been exorcised by the skilful magician Mulvaney.
‘Talk, Terence!’ I said, ‘or we shall have Learoyd slinging loose, and he’ll be worse than Ortheris was. Talk! He’ll answer to your voice.’
Almost before Ortheris had deftly thrown all the rifles of the guard on Mulvaney’s bedstead, the Irishman’s voice was uplifted as that of one in the middle of a story, and, turning to me, he said:—
‘In barricks or out av it, as you say, sorr, an Irish rig’mint is the divil an’ more. ’Tis only fit for a young man wid eddicated fisteses. Oh, the crame av disrupshin is an Irish rig’mint, an’ rippin’, tearin’, ragin’ scattherers in the field av war! My first rig’mint was Irish—Faynians an’ rebils to the heart av their marrow was they, an’ so they fought for the Widdy betther than most, bein’ contrairy—Irish. They was the Black Tyrone. You’ve heard av thim, sorr?’
Heard of them! I knew the Black Tyrone for the choicest collection of unmitigated blackguards, dog-stealers, robbers of hen-roosts, assaulters of innocent citizens, and recklessly daring heroes in the Army List. Half Europe and half Asia has had cause to know the Black Tyrone—good luck be with their tattered Colours as Glory has ever been
‘They was hot pickils an’ ginger! I cut a man’s head to deep wid me belt in the days av me youth, an’, afther some circumstances which I will oblitherate, I came to the Ould Rig’mint, bearin’ the character av a man wid hands an’ feet. But, as I was goin’ to tell you, I fell acrost the Black Tyrone agin wan day whin we wanted thim powerful bad. Orth’ris, me son, fwhat was the name av that place where they sint wan comp’ny av us an’ wan av the Tyrone roun’ a hill an’ down agin, all for to tache the Paythans something they’d niver learned before? Afther Ghuzni ’twas.’
‘Don’t know what the bloomin’ Paythans called it. We called it Silver’s Theayter. You know that, sure!’
‘Silver’s Theatre—so ’twas. A gut betwix’ two hills, as black as a bucket, an’ as thin as a gurl’s waist. There was over-many Paythans for our convaynience in the gut, an’ begad they called thimsilves a Reserve—bein’ impident by natur’! Our Scotchies an’ lashin’s av Gurkys was poundin’ into some Paythan rig’mints, I think ’Twas. Scotchies an’ Gurkys are twins bekaze they’re so onlike, an’ they get dhrunk together whin God plazes. As I was sayin’, they sint wan comp’ny av the Ould an’ wan av the Tyrone to double up the hill an’ clane out the Paythan Reserve. Orf’cers was scarce in thim days, fwhat wid dysint’ry an’ not takin’ care av thimsilves, an’ we was sint out wid only wan orf’cer for the comp’ny; but he was a Man that had his feet beneath him an’ all his teeth in their sockuts.’
‘Who was he?’ I asked.
‘Captain O’Neil—Old Crook—Cruik-na-bul-leen—him that I tould ye that tale av whin he was in Burma. Hah! He was a Man. The Tyrone tuk a little orf’cer bhoy, but divil a bit was he in command, as I’ll dimonsthrate prisintly. We an’ they came over the brow av the hill, wan on each side av the gut, an’ there was that ondacint Reserve waitin’ down below like rats in a pit.
‘“Howld on, men,” sez Crook, who tuk a mother’s care av us always. “Rowl some rocks on thim by way av visitin’-kyards.” We hadn’t rowled more than twinty bowlders, an’ the Paythans was beginnin’ to swear tremenjus, whin the little orf’cer bhoy av the Tyrone shqueaks out acrost the valley: “Fwhat the divil an’ all are you doin’, shpoilin’ the fun for my men? Do ye not see they’ll stand?”
‘“Faith, that’s a rare pluckt wan!” sez Crook. “Niver mind the rocks, men. Come along down an’ take tay wid thim!”
‘“There’s damned little sugar in ut!” sez my rear-rank man; but Crook heard.
‘“Have ye not all got spoons?” he sez, laughin’, an’ down we wint as fast as we cud. Learoyd bein’ sick at the Base, he, av coorse, was not there.’
‘Thot’s a lie!’ said Learoyd, dragging his bedstead nearer. ‘Ah gotten thot theer, an’ you knaw it, Mulvaaney.’ He threw up his arms, and from the right armpit ran, diagonally through the fell of his chest, a thin white line terminating near the fourth left rib.
‘My mind’s goin’,’ said Mulvaney, the unabashed. ‘Ye were there. Fwhat was I thinkin’ av? ’Twas another man, av coorse. Well, you’ll remimber thin, Jock, how we an’ the Tyrone met wid a bang at the bottom an’ got jammed past all movin’ among the Paythans?’
‘Ow! It was a tight ’ole. I was squeezed till I thought I’d bloomin’ well bust,’ said Ortheris, rubbing his stomach meditatively.
‘’Twas no place for a little man, but wan little man’—Mulvaney put his hand on Ortheris’s shoulder—‘saved the life av me. There we shtuck, for divil a bit did the Paythans flinch, an’ divil a bit dare we; our business bein’ to clear ’em out. An’ the most exthryordinar’ thing av all was that we an’ they just rushed into each other’s arrums, an’ there was no firin’ for a long time. Nothin’ but knife an’ bay’nit when we cud get our hands free: an’ that was not often. We was breast-on to thim, an’ the Tyrone was yelpin’ behind av us in a way I didn’t see the lean av at first. But I knew later, an’ so did the Paythans.
‘“Knee to knee!” sings out Crook, wid a laugh whin the rush av our comin’ into the gut shtopped, an’ he was huggin’ a hairy great Paythan, neither bein’ able to do anything to the other, tho’ both was wishful.
‘“Breast to breast!” he sez, as the Tyrone was pushin’ us forward closer an’ closer.
‘“An’ hand over back!” sez a Sargint that was behin’. I saw a sword lick out past Crook’s ear, an’ the Paythan was tuk in the apple av his throat like a pig at Dromeen Fair.
‘“Thank ye, Brother Inner Guard,” sez Crook, cool as a cucumber widout salt. “I wanted that room.” An’ he went forward by the thickness av a man’s body, havin’ turned the Paythan undher him. The man bit the heel off Crook’s boot in his death-bite.
‘“Push, men!” sez Crook. “Push, ye paper-backed beggars!” he sez. “Am I to pull ye through?” So we pushed, an’ we kicked, an’ we swung, an’ we swore, an’ the grass bein’ slippery, our heels wudn’t bite, an’ God help the front-rank man that wint down that day!’
‘’Ave you ever bin in the Pit hentrance o’ the Vic. on a thick night?’ interrupted Ortheris. ‘It was worse nor that, for they was goin’ one way, an’ we wouldn’t ’ave it. Leastaways, I ’adn’t much to say.’
‘Faith, me son, ye said ut, thin. I kep’ this little man betune my knees as long as I cud, but he was pokin’ roun’ wid his bay’nit, blindin’ an’ stiffen’ feroshus. The divil of a man is Orth’ris in a ruction—aren’t ye?’ said Mulvaney.
‘Don’t make game!’ said the Cockney. ‘I knowed I wasn’t no good then, but I guv ’em compot from the lef’ flank when we opened out. No!’ he said, bringing down his hand with a thump on the bedstead, ‘a bay’nit ain’t no good to a little man—might as well ’ave a bloomin’ fishin’-rod! I ’ate a clawin’, maulin’ mess, but gimme a breech that’s wore out a bit an’ hamminition one year in store, to let the powder kiss the bullet, an’ put me somewheres where I ain’t trod on by ’ulking swine like you, an’ s’elp me Gawd, I could bowl you over five times outer seven at height ’undred. Would yer try, you lumberin’ Hirishman?’
‘No, ye wasp. I’ve seen ye do ut. I say there’s nothin’ better than the bay’nit, wid a long reach, a double twist av ye can, an’ a slow recover.’
‘Dom the bay’nit,’ said Learoyd, who had been listening intently. ‘Look a-here!’ He picked up a rifle an inch below the foresight with an underhanded action, and used it exactly as a man would use a dagger.
‘Sitha,’ said he softly, ‘thot’s better than owt, for a mon can bash t’ faace wi’ thot, an’, if he divn’t, he can breeak t’ forearm o’ t’ guaard. ’Tis nut i’ t’ books, though. Gie me t’ butt.’
‘Each does ut his own way, like makin’ love,’ said Mulvaney quietly; ‘the butt or the bay’nit or the bullet accordin’ to the natur’ av the man. Well, as I was sayin’, we shtuck there breathin’ in each other’s faces an’ swearin’ powerful; Orth’ris cursin’ the mother that bore him bekaze he was not three inches taller.
‘Prisintly he sez: “Duck, ye lump, an’ I can get at a man over your shoulther!”
‘“You’ll blow me head off,” I sez, throwin’ my arrum clear; “go through under my arrumpit, ye bloodthirsty little scutt,” sez I, “but don’t shtick me or I’ll wring your ears round.”
‘Fwhat was ut ye gave the Paythan man forninst me, him that cut at me whin I cudn’t move hand or foot? Hot or cowld was ut?’
‘Cold,’ said Ortheris, ‘up an’ under the rib-jints. ’E come down flat. Best for you ’e did.’
‘Thrue, me son! This jam thing that I’m talkin’ about lasted for five minut’s good, an’ thin we got our arrums clear an’ wint in. I misremimber exactly fwhat I did, but I didn’t want Dinah to be a widdy at the depot. Thin, afther some promishcuous hackin’ we shtuck agin, an’ the Tyrone behin’ was callin’ us dogs an’ cowards an’ all manner av names; we barrin’ their way.
‘“Fwhat ails the Tyrone?” thinks I. “They’ve the makin’s av a most convanient fight here.”
A man behind me sez beseechful an’ in a whisper: “Let me get at thim! For the love av Mary, give me room beside ye, ye tall man!”
‘“An’ who are you that’s so anxious to be kilt?” sez I, widout turnin’ my head, for the long knives was dancin’ in front like the sun on Donegal Bay whin ut’s rough.
‘“We’ve seen our. dead,” he sez, squeezin’ into me; “our dead that was men two days gone! An’ me that was his cousin by blood cud not bring Tim Coulan off! Let me get on,” he sez, “let me get to thim or I’ll run ye through the back!”
‘“My troth,” thinks I, “if the Tyrone have seen their dead, God help the Paythans this day!” An’ thin I knew why the Tyrone was ragin’ behind us as they was.
‘I gave room to the man, an’ he ran forward wid the Haymakers’ Lift on his bay’nit an’ swung a Paythan clear off his feet by the belly-band av the brute, an’ the iron bruk at the lockin’-ring.
‘“Tim Coulan ‘ll slape aisy to-night,” sez he wid a grin; an’ the next minut’ his head was in two halves and he wint down grinnin’ by sections.
‘The Tyrone was pushin’ an’ pushin’ in, an’ our men was swearin’ at thim, an’ Crook was workin’ away in front av us all, his sword-arrum swingin’ like a pump-handle an’ his revolver spittin’ like a cat. But the strange thing av ut was the quiet that lay upon. ’Twas like a fight in a drame—excipt for thim that was dead.
‘Whin I gave room to the Irishman I was expinded an’ forlorn in my inside. ’Tis a way I have, savin’ your presince, sorr, in action. “Let me out, bhoys,” sez I, backin’ in among thim. “I’m goin’ to be onwell!” Faith, they gave me room at the wurrud, though they wud not ha’ given room for all Hell wid the chill off. When I got clear, I was, savin’ your presince, sorr, outrajis sick bekaze I had dhrunk heavy that day.
‘Well an’ far out av harm was a Sargint av the Tyrone sittin’ on the little orf’cer bhoy who had stopped Crook from rowlin’ the rocks. Oh, he was a beautiful bhoy, an’ the long black curses was slidin’ out av his innocint mouth like mornin’jew from a rose!
‘“Fwhat have you got there?” sez I to the Sargint.
‘“Wan av Her Majesty’s bantams wid his spurs up,” sez he. “He’s goin’ to Coort-Martial me.”
‘“Let me go!” sez the little orf’cer bhoy. “Let me go and command me men!” manin’ thereby the Black Tyrone which was beyond any command—even av they had made the Divil Field-Orf’cer.
‘“His father howlds my mother’s cow-feed in Clonmel,” sez the man that was sittin’ on him. “Will I go back to his mother an’ tell her that I’ve let him throw himsilf away? Lie still, ye little pinch of dynamite, an’ Coort-Martial me aftherwards.”
‘“Good,” sez I; “’Tis the likes av him makes the likes av the Commandher-in-Chief, but we must presarve thim. Fwhat d’you want to do, sorr.?” sez I, very politeful.
‘“Kill the beggars—kill the beggars!” he shqueaks, his big blue eyes brimmin’ wid tears.
‘“An’ how’ll ye do that?” sez I. “You’ve shquibbed off your revolver like a child wid a cracker; you can make no play wid that fine large sword av yours; an’ your hand’s shakin’ like an asp on a leaf. Lie still and grow,” sez I.
‘“Get back to your comp’ny,” sez he; “ you’re insolint! “
‘“All in good time,” sez I, “but I’ll have a dhrink first.”
‘Just thin Crook comes up, blue an’ white all over where he wasn’t red.
‘“Wather!” sez he; “I’m dead wid drouth! Oh, but it’s a gran’ day!”
‘He dhrank half a skinful, and the rest he tilts into his chest, an’ it fair hissed on the hairy hide av him. He sees the little orf’cer bhoy undher the Sargint.
‘“Fwhat’s yonder?” sez he.
‘“Mutiny, sorr,” sez the Sargint, an’ the orf’cer bhoy begins pleadin’ pitiful to Crook to be let go; but divil a bit wud Crook budge.
‘“Kape him there,” he sez; “’Tis no child’s work this day. By the same token,” sez he, “I’ll confishcate that iligant nickel-plated scent-sprinkler av yours, for my own has been vomitin’ dishgraceful!”
‘The fork av his hand was black wid the backspit av the machine. So he tuk the orf’cer bhoy’s revolver. Ye may look, sorr, but, by my faith, there’s a dale more done in the field than iver gets into Field Ordhers!
‘“Come on, Mulvaney,” sez Crook; “is this a Coort-Martial?” The two av us wint back together into the mess an’ the Paythans was still standin’ up. They was not too impart’nint though, for the Tyrone was callin’ wan to another to remimber Tim Coulan.
‘Crook holted outside av the strife an’ looked anxious, his eyes rowlin’ roun’.
‘“Fwhat is ut, sorr?” sez I; “can I get ye anything?”
‘“Where’s a bugler?” sez he.
‘I wint into the crowd—our men was dhrawin’ breath behin’ the Tyrone, who was fightin’ like sowls in tormint—an’ prisintly I came acrost little Frehan, our bugler bhoy, pokin’ roun’ among the best wid a rifle an’ bay’nit.
‘“Is amusin’ yoursilf fwhat you’re paid for, ye limb?” sez I, catchin’ him by the scruff. “Come out av that an’ attind to your jooty,” I sez; but the bhoy was not plazed.
‘“I’ve got wan,” sez he, grinnin’, “big as you, Mulvaney, an’ fair half as ugly. Let me go get another.”
‘I was dishplazed at the personability av that remark, so I tucks him under my arrum an’ carries him to Crook, who was watchin’ how the fight wint. Crook cuffs him till the bhoy cries, an’ thin sez nothin’ for a whoile.
‘The Paythans began to flicker onaisy, an’ our men roared. “Opin ordher! Double!” sez Crook. “Blow, child, blow for the honour av the British Arrmy!”
‘That bhoy blew like a typhoon, an’ the Tyrone an’ we opind out as the Paythans bruk, an’ I saw that fwhat had gone before wud be kissin’ an’ huggin’ to fwhat was to come. We’d dhruv thim into a broad part av the gut whin they gave, an’ thin we opind out an’ fair danced down the valley, dhrivin’ thim before us. Oh, ’twas lovely, an’ stiddy, too! There was the Sargints on the flanks av what was left av us, kapin’ touch, an’ the fire was runnin’ from flank to flank, an’ the Paythans was dhroppin’. We opind out wid the widenin’ av the valley, an’ whin the valley narrowed we closed agin like the shticks on a lady’s fan, an’ at the far ind av the gut where they thried to stand, we fair blew them off their feet, for we had expinded very little ammunition by reason av the knife-work.’
‘I used thirty rounds goin’ down that valley,’ said Ortheris, ‘an’ it was gentleman’s work. Might ’a’ done it in a white ’andkerchief an’ pink silk stockin’s, that part. Hi was on in that piece.’
‘You cud ha’ heard the Tyrone yellin’ a mile away,’ said Mulvaney, ‘an’ ’twas all their Sargints cud do to get thim off. They was mad—mad—mad! Crook sits down in the quiet that fell whin we had gone down the valley, an’ covers his face wid his hands. Prisintly we all came back agin accordin’ to our natur’s and disposishins, for they, mark you, show through the hide av a man in that hour.
‘“Bhoys I bhoys!”sez Crook to himsilf. “I misdoubt we cud ha’ engaged at long range an’ saved betther men than me.” He looked at our dead an’ said no more.
‘“Captain dear,” sez a man av the Tyrone, comin’ up wid his mouth bigger than iver his mother kissed ut, spittin’ blood like a whale; “Captain dear,” sez he, “if wan or two in the shtalls have been dishcommoded, the gallery have enjoyed the performinces av a Roshus.”
‘Thin I knew that man for the Dublin dockrat he was—wan av the bhoys that made the lessee av Silver’s Theatre grey before his time wid tearin’ out the bowils av the benches an’ throwin’ thim into the pit. So I passed the wurrud that I knew whin I was in the Tyrone an’ we lay in Dublin. “I don’t know who ’twas,” I whishpers, “ an’ I don’t care, but anyways I’ll knock the face av you, Tim Kelly.”
‘“Eyah!” sez the man, “was you there too? We’ll call ut Silver’s Theatre.” Half the Tyrone, knowin’ the ould place, tuk ut up: so we called ut Silver’s Theatre.
‘The little orf’cer bhoy av the Tyrone was thremblin’ an’ cryin’. He had no heart for the Coort-Martials that he talked so big upon. “Ye’ll do well later,” sez Crook, very quiet, “for not bein’ allowed to kill yoursilf for amusemint.”
‘“I’m a dishgraced man!” sez the little orf’cer bhoy.
‘“Put me undher arrest, sorr, if you will, but, by my sowl, I’d do ut agin sooner than face your mother wid you dead,” sez the Sargint that had sat on his head, standin’ to attenshin an’ salutin’. But the young wan only cried as tho’ his little heart was breakin’.
‘Thin another man av the Tyrone came up, wid the fog av fightin’ on him.’
‘The what, Mulvaney?’
‘Fog av fightin’. You know, sorr, that, like makin’ love, ut takes each man diff’rint. Now, I can’t help bein’ powerful sick whin I’m in action. Orth’ris, here, niver stops swearin’ from ind to ind, an’ the only time that Learoyd opins his mouth to sing is whin he is messin’ wid other people’s heads; for he’s a dhirty fighter is jock. Recruities sometime cry, an’ sometime they don’t know fwhat they do, an’ sometime they are all for cuttin’ throats an’ such-like dhirtiness; but some men get heavy-dead-dhrunk on the fightin’. This man was. He was staggerin’, an’ his eyes were half shut, an’ we cud hear him dhraw breath twinty yards away. He sees the little orf’cer bhoy, an’ comes up, talkin’ thick an’ drowsy to himsilf. “Blood the young whelp!” he sez; “Blood the young whelp”; an’ wid that he threw up his arrums, shpun roun’, an’ dropped at our feet, dead as a Paythan, an’ there was niver sign or scratch on him. They said ’twas his heart was rotten, but oh, ’twas a quare thing to see!
‘Thin we wint to bury our dead, for we wud not lave thim to the Paythans, an’ in movin’ among the haythen we nearly lost that little orf’cer bhoy. He was for givin’ wan divil wather and layin’ him aisy against a rock. “Be careful, sorr,” sez I; “a wounded Paythan’s worse than a live wan.” My troth, before the words was out av me mouth, the man on the ground fires at the orf’cer bhoy lanin’ over him, an’ I saw the helmit fly. I dropped the butt on the face av the man an’ tuk his pistol. The little orf’cer bhoy turned very white, for the hair av half his head was singed away.
‘“I tould you so, sorr I” sez I; an’, afther that, whin he wanted to help a Paythan I stud wid the muzzle contagious to the ear. They dared not do anythin’ but curse. The Tyrone was growlin’ like dogs over a bone that has been taken away too soon, for they had seen their dead an’ they wanted to kill ivry sowl on the ground. Crook tould thim that he’d blow the hide off any man that misconducted himsilf; but, seeing that ut was the first time the Tyrone had iver seen their dead, I do not wondher they was on the sharp. ’Tis a shameful sight! Whin I first saw ut I wud niver ha’ given quarter to any man north of the Khyber—no, nor woman either, for the wimmen used to come out afther dhark—Auggrh!
‘Well, evenshually we buried our dead an’ tuk away our wounded, an’ come over the brow av the hills to see the Scotchies an’ the Gurkys takin’ tay with the Paythans in bucketsfuls. We were a gang av dissolute ruffians, for the blood had caked the dust, an’ the sweat had cut the cake, an’ our bay’nits was hangin’ like butchers’ steels betune our legs, an’ most av us was marked one way or another.
‘A Staff Orf’cer man, clane as a new rifle, rides up an’ sez: “What damned scarecrows are you?”
‘“A comp’ny av Her Majesty’s Black Tyrone an’ wan av the Ould Rig’mint,” sez Crook very quiet, givin’ our visitors the flure as ’twas.
‘“Oh!” sez the Staff Orf’cer. “Did you dislodge that Reserve?”
‘“No!” sez Crook, an’ the Tyrone laughed.
‘“Thin fwhat the divil have ye done?”
‘“Disthroyed ut,” sez Crook, an’ he took us on, but not before Toomey that was in the Tyrone sez aloud, his voice somewhere in his stummick “Fwhat in the name av misfortune does this parrit widout a tail mane by shtoppin’ the road av his betthers?”
The Staff Orf’cer wint blue, an’ Toomey makes him pink by changin’ to the voice av a minowdherin’ woman an’ sayin’: “Come an’ kiss me, Major dear, for me husband’s at the wars an’ I’m all alone at the depot.”
‘The Staff Orf’cer wint away, an’ I cud see Crook’s shoulthers shakin’.
‘His Corp’ril checks Toomey. “Lave me alone,” sez Toomey, widout a wink. “I was his batman before he was married an’ he knows fwhat I mane, av you don’t. There’s nothin’ like livin’ in the hoight av society.” D’you remimber that, Orth’ris?’
‘Yuss. Toomey, ’e died in ’orspital, next week it was, ’cause I bought ’arf his kit; an’ I remember after that——’
‘GUARRD, TURN OUT!’
The Relief had come; it was four o’clock. ‘I’ll catch a kyart for you, sorr,’ said Mulvaney, diving hastily into his accoutrements. ‘Come up to the top av the Fort an’ we’ll pershue our invistigations into M’Grath’s shtable.’ The relieved guard strolled round the main bastion on its way to the swimming-bath, and Learoyd grew almost talkative. Ortheris looked into the Fort Ditch and across the plain. ‘Ho! it’s weary waitin’ for Ma-ary!’ he hummed; ‘but I’d like to kill some more bloomin’ Paythans before my time’s up. War! Bloody war! North, East, South, and West.’
‘Amen,’ said Learoyd slowly.
‘Fwhat’s here?’ said Mulvaney, checking at a blur of white by the foot of the old sentry-box. He stooped and touched it. ‘It’s Norah—Norah M‘Taggart! Why, Nonie darlin’, fwhat are ye doin’ out av your mother’s bed at this time?’
The two-year-old child of Sergeant M‘Taggart must have wandered for a breath of cool air to the very verge of the parapet of the Fort Ditch. Her tiny nightshift was gathered into a wisp round her neck and she moaned in her sleep. ‘See there!’ said Mulvaney; ‘poor lamb! Look at the heatrash on the innocint shkin av her. ’Tis hard—crool hard even for us. Fwhat must it be for these? Wake up, Nonie, your mother will be woild about you. Begad, the child might ha’ fallen into the Ditch!’
He picked her up in the growing light, and set her on his shoulder, and her fair curls touched the grizzled stubble of his temples. Ortheris and Learoyd followed snapping their fingers, while Norah smiled at them a sleepy smile. Then carolled Mulvaney, clear as a lark, dancing the baby on his arm:—
‘If any young man should marry you,
Say nothin’ about the joke;
That aver ye slep’ in a sinthry-box,
Wrapped up in a soldier’s cloak.’
‘Though, on my sowl, Nonie,’ he said gravely, ‘there was not much cloak about you. Niver mind, you won’t dhress like this ten years to come. Kiss your frinds an’ run along to your mother.’
Nonie, set down close to the Married Quarters, nodded with the quiet obedience of the soldier’s child, but, ere she pattered off over the flagged path, held up her lips to be kissed by the Three Musketeers. Ortheris wiped his mouth with the back of his hand and swore sentimentally! Learoyd turned pink; and the two walked away together. The Yorkshireman lifted up his voice and gave in thunder the chorus of The Sentry-Box, while Ortheris piped at his side.
‘Bin to a bloomin’ sing-song, you two?’ said the Artilleryman, who was taking his cartridge down to the Morning Gun. ‘You’re over merry for these dashed days.’
‘I bid ye take care o’ the brat, said he,
For it comes of a noble race,’
Learoyd bellowed. The voices died out in the swimming-bath.
‘Oh, Terence!’ I said, dropping into Mulvaney’s speech, when we were alone, ‘it’s you that have the Tongue! ‘
He looked at me wearily; his eyes were sunk in his head, and his face was drawn and white. ‘Eyah!’ said he; ‘I’ve blandandhered thim through the night somehow, but can thim that helps others help thimsilves? Answer me that, sorr!’
And over the bastions of Fort Amara broke the pitiless day.