In The Matter Of A Private
Hurrah! hurrah! a soldier’s life for me!
Shout, boys, shout! for it makes you jolly and free.
The Ramrod Corps.
People who have seen say that one of the quaintest spectacles of human frailty is an outbreak of hysterics in a girls’ school. It starts without warning, generally on a hot afternoon, among the elder pupils. A girl giggles till the giggle gets beyond control. Then she throws up her head and cries, “Honk, honk, honk,” like a wild goose, and tears mix with the laughter. If the mistress be wise, she will rap out something severe at this point to check matters. If she be tender-hearted, and send for a drink of water, the chances are largely in favour of another girl laughing at the afflicted one and herself collapsing. Thus the trouble spreads, and may end in half of what answers to the Lower Sixth of a boys’ school rocking and whooping together. Given a week of warm weather, two stately promenades per diem, a heavy mutton and rice meal in the middle of the day, a certain amount of nagging from the teachers, and a few other things, some amazing effects develop. At least, this is what folk say who have had experience.
Now, the Mother Superior of a Convent and the Colonel of a British Infantry Regiment would be justly shocked at any comparison being made between their respective charges. But it is a fact that, under certain circumstances, Thomas in bulk can be worked up into ditthering, rippling hysteria. He does not weep, but he shows his trouble unmistakably, and the consequences get into the newspapers, and all the good people who hardly know a Martini from a Snider say: “Take away the brute’s ammunition!”
Thomas isn’t a brute, and his business, which is to look after the virtuous people, demands that he shall have his ammunition to his hand. He doesn’t wear silk stockings, and he really ought to be supplied with a new Adjective to help him to express his opinions: but, for all that, he is a great man. If you call him “the heroic defender of the national honour” one day, and “a brutal and licentious soldiery” the next, you naturally bewilder him, and he looks upon you with suspicion. There is nobody to speak for Thomas except people who have theories to work off on him, and nobody understands Thomas except Thomas, and he does not always know what is the matter with himself.
That is the prologue. This is the story: –
Corporal Slane was engaged to be married to Miss Jhansi M’Kenna, whose history is well known in the regiment and elsewhere. He had his Colonel’s permission, and, being popular with the men, every arrangement had been made to give the wedding what Private Ortheris called “eeklar.” It fell in the heart of the hot weather, and, after the wedding, Slane was going up to the Hills with the bride. None the less, Slane’s grievance was that the affair would be only a hired-carriage wedding, and he felt that the “eeklar” of that was meagre. Miss M’Kenna did not care so much. The Sergeant’s wife was helping her to make her wedding-dress, and she was very busy. Slane was, just then, the only moderately contented man in barracks. All the rest were more or less miserable.
And they had so much to make them happy, too. All their work was over at eight in the morning, and for the rest of the day they could lie on their backs and smoke Canteen-plug and swear at the punkah-coolies. They enjoyed a fine, full flesh meal in the middle of the day, and then threw themselves down on their cots and sweated and slept till it was cool enough to go out with their “towny,” whose vocabulary contained less than six hundred words, and the Adjective, and whose views on every conceivable question they had heard many times before.
There was the Canteen, of course, and there was the Temperance Room with the second-hand papers in it; but a man of any profession cannot read for eight hours a day in a temperature of 96ø or 98ø in the shade, running up sometimes to 103ø at midnight. Very few men, even though they get a pannikin of flat, stale, muddy beer and hide it under their cots, can continue drinking for six hours a day. One man tried, but he died, and nearly the whole regiment went to his funeral because it gave them something to do. It was too early for the excitement of fever or cholera. The men could only wait and wait and wait, and watch the shadow of the barrack creeping across the blinding white dust. That was a gay life.
They lounged about cantonments – it was too hot for any sort of game, and almost too hot for vice – and fuddled themselves in the evening, and filled themselves to distension with the healthy nitrogenous food provided for them, and the more they stoked the less exercise they took and more explosive they grew. Then tempers began to wear away, and men fell a-brooding over insults real or imaginary, for they had nothing else to think of. The tone of the repartees changed, and instead of saying light-heartedly: I’ll knock your silly face in,” men grew laboriously polite and hinted that the cantonments were not big enough for themselves and their enemy, and that there would be more space for one of the two in another Place.
It may have been the Devil who arranged the thing, but the fact of the case is that Losson had for a long time been worrying Simmons in an aimless way. It gave him occupation. The two had their cots side by side, and would sometimes spend a long afternoon swearing at each other; but Simmons was afraid of Losson and dared not challenge him to a fight. He thought over the words in the hot still nights, and half the hate he felt towards Losson he vented on the wretched punkah-coolie.
Losson bought a parrot in the bazar, and put it into a little cage, and lowered the cage into the cool darkness of a well, and sat on the well-curb, shouting bad language down to the parrot. He taught it to say: “Simmons, ye so-oor,” which means swine, and several other things entirely unfit for publication. He was a big gross man, and he shook like a jelly when the parrot had the sentence correctly. Simmons, however, shook with rage, for all the room were laughing at him – the parrot was such a disreputable puff of green feathers and it looked so human when it chattered. Losson used to sit, swinging his fat legs, on the side of the cot, and ask the parrot what it thought of Simmons. The parrot would answer: “Simmons, ye so-oor.” Good boy,” Losson used to say, scratching the parrot’s head; “ye ‘ear that, Sim?” And Simmons used to turn over on his stomach and make answer: “I ‘ear. Take ‘eed you don’t ‘ear something one of these days.”
In the restless nights, after he had been asleep all day, fits of blind rage came upon Simmons and held him till he trembled all over, while he thought in how many different ways he would slay Losson. Sometimes he would picture himself trampling the life out of the man with heavy ammunition-boots, and at others smashing in his face with the butt, and at others jumping on his shoulders and dragging the head back till the neckbone cracked. Then his mouth would feel hot and fevered, and he would reach out for another sup of the beer in the pannikin.
But the fancy that came to him most frequently and stayed with him longest was one connected with the great roll of fat under Losson’s right ear. He noticed it first on a moonlight night, and thereafter it was always before his eyes. It was a fascinating roll of fat. A man could get his hand upon it and tear away one side of the neck; or he could place the muzzle of a rifle on it and blow away all the head in a flash. Losson had no right to be sleek and contented and well-to-do, when he, Simmons, was the butt of the room. Some day, perhaps, he would show those who laughed at the “Simmons, ye so-oor” joke, that he was as good as the rest, and held a man’s life in the crook of his forefinger. When Losson snored, Simmons hated him more bitterly than ever. Why should Losson be able to sleep when Simmons had to stay awake hour after hour, tossing and turning on the tapes, with the dull liver pain gnawing into his right side and his head throbbing and aching after Canteen? He thought over this for many, many nights, and the world became unprofitable to him. He even blunted his naturally fine appetite with beer and tobacco; and all the while the parrot talked at and made a mock of him.
The heat continued and the tempers wore away more quickly than before. A Sergeant’s wife died of heat-apoplexy in the night, and the rumour ran abroad that it was cholera. Men rejoiced openly, hoping that it would spread and send them into camp. But that was a false alarm.
It was late on a Tuesday evening, and the men were waiting in the deep double verandahs for “Last Post,” when Simmons went to the box at the foot of his bed, took out his pipe, and slammed the lid down with a bang that echoed through the deserted barrack like the crack of a rifle. Ordinarily speaking, the men would have taken no notice; but their nerves were fretted to fiddle-strings. They jumped up, and three or four clattered into the barrack-room only to find Simmons kneeling by his box.
“Ow! It’s you, is it?” they said, and laughed foolishly. “We thought ’twas -”
Simmons rose slowly. If the accident had so shaken his fellows, what would not the reality do?
“You thought it was – did you? And what makes you think?” he said, lashing himself into madness as he went on; “to Hell with your thinking, ye dirty spies!”
“Simmons, ye so-oor,” chuckled the parrot in the verandah sleepily, recognising a well-known voice. Now that was absolutely all.
The tension snapped. Simmons fell back on the arm-rack deliberately, – the men were at the far end of the room, – and took out his rifle and packet of ammunition. “Don’t go playing the goat, Sim!” said Losson. “Put it down,” but there was a quaver in his voice. Another man stooped, slipped his boot, and hurled it at Simmons’s head. The prompt answer was a shot which, fired at random, found its billet in Losson’s throat. Losson fell forward without a word, and the others scattered.
“You thought it was!” yelled Simmons. “You’re drivin’ me to it! I tell you you’re drivin’ me to it! Get up, Losson, an’ don’t lie shammin’ there – you an’ your blasted parrit that druv me to it!
But there was an unaffected reality about Losson’s pose that showed Simmons what he had done. The men were still clamouring in the verandah. Simmons appropriated two more packets of ammunition and ran into the moonlight, muttering: “I’ll make a night of it. Thirty roun’s, an’ the last for myself. Take you that, you dogs!”
He dropped on one knee and fired into the brown of the men on the verandah, but the bullet flew high, and landed in the brickwork with a vicious phwit that made some of the younger ones turn pale. It is, as musketry theorists observe, one thing to fire and another to be fired at.
Then the instinct of the chase flared up. The news spread from barrack to barrack, and the men doubled out intent on the capture of Simmons, the wild beast, who was heading for the Cavalry parade-ground, stopping now and again to send back a shot and a curse in the direction of his pursuers.
“I’ll learn you to spy on me!” he shouted; “I’ll learn you to give me dorg’s names! Come on, the ‘ole lot o’ you! Colonel John Anthony Deever, C. B.!” -he turned towards the Infantry Mess and shook his rifle – “you think yourself the devil of a man – but I tell you that if you put your ugly old carcass outside o’ that door, I’ll make you the poorest-lookin’ man in the army. Come out, Colonel John Anthony Deever, C. B.! Come Out and see me practiss on the rainge. I’m the crack shot of the ‘ole bloomin’ battalion.” In proof of which statement Simmons fired at the lighted windows of the mess-house.
“Private Simmons, E Comp’ny, on the Cavalry p’rade-ground, Sir, with thirty rounds,” said a Sergeant breathlessly to the Colonel. “Shootin’ right and lef’, Sir. Shot Private Losson. What’s to be done, Sir?”
Colonel John Anthony Deever, C. B., sallied out, only to be saluted by a spurt of dust at his feet.
“Pull up!” said the Second in Command; “I don’t want my step in that way, Colonel. He’s as dangerous as a mad dog.”
“Shoot him like one, then,” said the Colonel bitterly, “if he won’t take his chance. My regiment, too! If it had been the Towheads I could have understood.”
Private Simmons had occupied a strong position near a well on the edge of the parade-ground, and was defying the regiment to come on. The regiment was not anxious to comply, for there is small honour in being shot by a fellow-private. Only Corporal Slane, rifle in hand, threw himself down on the ground, and wormed his way towards the well.
“Don’t shoot,” said he to the men round him; “like as not you’ll ‘it me. I’ll catch the beggar livin’.”
Simmons ceased shouting for a while, and th noise of trap-wheels could be heard across the plain. Major Oldyne, Commanding the Horse Battery, was coming back from a dinner in the Civil Lines; was driving after his usual custom – that is to say, as fast as the horse could go.
“A orf’cer! A blooming spangled orf’cer!” shrieked Simmons; “I’ll make a scarecrow of that orf’cer!” The trap stopped.
“What’s this?” demanded the Major of Gunners. “You there, drop your rifle.”
“Why, it’s Jerry Blazes! I ain’t got no quarrel with you, Jerry Blazes. Pass, frien’, an’ all’s well!”
But Jerry Blazes had not the faintest intention of passing a dangerous murderer. He was, as his adoring Battery swore long and fervently, without knowledge of fear, and they were surely the best judges, for Jerry Blazes, it was notorious, had done his possible to kill a man each time the Battery went out.
He walked towards Simmons, with the intention of rushing him and knocking him down.
“Don’t make me do it, Sir,” said Simmons; “I ain’t got nothing ag’in’ you. Ah! you would?” – the Major broke into a run – “Take that, then!”
The Major dropped with a bullet through his shoulder, and Simmons stood over him. He had lost the satisfaction of killing Losson in the desired way: but here was a helpless body to his hand. Should he slip in another cartridge, and blow off the head, or with the butt smash in the white face? He stopped to consider, and a cry went up from the far side of the parade-ground: “He’s killed Jerry Blazes!” But in the shelter of the well-pillars Simmons was safe, except when he stepped out to fire. “I’ll blow yer ‘andsome ‘ead off, Jerry Blazes,” said Simmons reflectively. “Six and three is nine an’ one is ten, an’ that leaves me another nineteen, an’ one for myself” He tugged at the string of the second packet of ammunition. Corporal Slane crawled out of the shadow of a bank into the moonlight.
“I see you!” said Simmons. “Come a bit furder on an’ I’ll do for you.”
“I’m comin’,” said Corporal Slane briefly; “you’ve done a bad day’s work, Sim. Come out ‘ere an’ come back with me.”
“Come to,” laughed Simmons, sending a cartridge home with his thumb. “Not before I’ve settled you an’ Jerry Blazes.”
The Corporal was lying at full length in the dust of the parade- ground, a rifle under him. Some of the less cautious men in the distance shouted: “Shoot ‘im! Shoot ‘im, Slane!”
“You move ‘and or foot, Slane,” said Simmons, “an’ I’ll kick Jerry Blazes’ ‘ead in, and shoot you after.”
“I ain’t movin’,” said the Corporal, raising his head; “you daren’t ‘it a man on ‘is legs. Let go o’ Jerry Blazes an’ come out o’ that with your fistes. Come an’ ‘it me. You daren’t, you bloom- in’ dog-shooter!”
“You lie, you man-sticker. You sneakin’, Sheeny butcher, you lie. See there!” Slane kicked the rifle away, and stood up in the peril of his life. “Come on, now!”
The temptation was more than Simmons could resist, for the Corporal in his white clothes offered a perfect mark.
“Don’t misname me,” shouted Simmons, firing as he spoke. The shot missed, and the shooter, blind with rage, threw his rifle down and rushed at Slane from the protection of the well. Within striking distance, he kicked savagely at Slane’s stomach, but the weedy Corporal knew something of Simmons’s weakness, and knew, too, the deadly guard for that kick. Bowing forward and drawing up his right leg till the heel of the right foot was set some three inches above the inside of the left knee-cap, he met the blow standing on one leg – exactly as Gonds stand when they meditate – and ready for the fall that would follow. There was an oath, the Corporal fell over to his own left as shinbone met shinbone, and the Private collapsed, his right leg broken an inch above the ankle.
“Pity you don’t know that guard, Sim,” said Slane, spitting out the dust as he rose. Then raising his voice – “Come an’ take him on. I’ve bruk ‘is leg.” This was not strictly true, for the Private had accomplished his own downfall, since it is the special merit of that leg-guard that the harder the kick the greater the kicker’s discomfiture.
Slane walked to Jerry Blazes and hung over him with ostentatious anxiety, while Simmons, weeping with pain, was carried away. “‘Ope you ain’t ‘urt badly, Sir,” said Slane. The Major had fainted, and there was an ugly, ragged hole through the top of his arm. Slane knelt down and murmured: “S’elp me, I believe ‘e’s dead. Well, if that ain’t my blooming luck all over!”
But the Major was destined to lead his Battery afield for many a long day with unshaken nerve. He was removed, and nursed and petted into convalescence, while the Battery discussed the wisdom of capturing Simmons and blowing him from a gun. They idolised their Major, and his reappearance on parade brought about a scene nowhere provided for in the Army Regulations.
Great, too, was the glory that fell to Slane’s share. The Gunners would have made him drunk thrice a day for at least a fortnight. Even the Colonel of his own regiment complimented him upon his coolness, and the local paper called him a hero. These things did not puff him up. When the Major offered him money and thanks, the virtuous Corporal took the one and put aside the other. But he had a request to make and prefaced it with many a “Beg y’ pardon, Sir.” Could the Major see his way to letting the Slane-M’Kenna wedding be adorned by the presence of four Battery horses to pull a hired barouche? The Major could, and so could the Battery. Excessively so. It was a gorgeous wedding.
“Wot did I do it for?” said Corporal Slane. “For the ‘orses o’ course. Jhansi ain’t a beauty to look at, but I wasn’t goin’ to ‘ave a hired turnout. Jerry Blazes? If I ‘adn’t ‘a’ wanted something, Sim might ha’ blowed Jerry Blazes’ blooming ‘ead into Hirish stew for aught I’d ‘a’ cared.”
And they hanged Private Simmons – hanged him as high as Haman in hollow square of the regiment; and the Colonel said it was Drink; and the Chaplain was sure it was the Devil; and Simmons fancied it was both, but he didn’t know, and only hoped his fate would be a warning to his companions; and half a dozen “intelligent publicists” wrote six beautiful leading articles on “The Prevalence of Crime in the Army.”
But not a soul thought of comparing the “bloody-minded Simmons” to the squawking, gaping school-girl with which this story opens.