The Man Who Was
The Earth gave up her dead that tide,
Into our camp he came,
And said his say, and went his way,
And left our hearts aflame.
Keep tally—on the gun-butt score
The vengeance we must take,
When God shall bring full reckoning,
For our dead comrade's sake.
Let it be clearly understood that the Russian is a delightful
person till he tucks in his shirt. As an Oriental he is charming. It
is only when he insists upon being treated as the most easterly of
western peoples instead of the most westerly of easterns that he
becomes a racial anomaly extremely difficult to handle. The host never
knows which side of his nature is going to turn up next.
Dirkovitch was a Russian—a Russian of the Russians—who appeared
to get his bread by serving the Czar as an officer in a Cossack
regiment, and corresponding for a Russian newspaper with a name that
was never twice alike. He was a handsome young Oriental, fond of
wandering through unexplored portions of the earth, and he arrived in
India from nowhere in particular. At least no living man could
ascertain whether it was by way of Balkh, Badakshan, Chitral,
Beluchistan, or Nepaul, or anywhere else. The Indian Government, being
in an unusually affable mood, gave orders that he was to be civilly
treated and shown everything that was to be seen. So he drifted,
talking bad English and worse French, from one city to another, till
he foregathered with Her Majesty's White Hussars in the city of
Peshawur, which stands at the mouth of that narrow swordcut in the
hills that men call the Khyber Pass. He was undoubtedly an officer,
and he was decorated after the manner of the Russians with little
enamelled crosses, and he could talk, and (though this has nothing to
do with his merits) he had been given up as a hopeless task, or cask,
by the Black Tyrone, who individually and collectively, with hot
whisky and honey, mulled brandy, and mixed spirits of every kind, had
striven in all hospitality to make him drunk. And when the Black
Tyrone, who are exclusively Irish, fail to disturb the peace of head
of a foreigner—that foreigner is certain to be a superior man.
The White Hussars were as conscientious in choosing their wine as
in charging the enemy. All that they possessed, including some
wondrous brandy, was placed at the absolute disposition of Dirkovitch,
and he enjoyed himself hugely—even more than among the Black Tyrones.
But he remained distressingly European through it all. The White
Hussars were 'My dear true friends,' 'Fellow-soldiers glorious,' and
'Brothers inseparable.' He would unburden himself by the hour on the
glorious future that awaited the combined arms of England and Russia
when their hearts and their territories should run side by side and
the great mission of civilising Asia should begin. That was
unsatisfactory, because Asia is not going to be civilised after the
methods of the West. There is too much Asia and she is too old. You
cannot reform a lady of many lovers, and Asia has been insatiable in
her flirtations aforetime. She will never attend Sunday-school or
learn to vote save with swords for tickets.
Dirkovitch knew this as well as any one else, but it suited him to
talk special-correspondently and to make himself as genial as he
could. Now and then he volunteered a little, a very little,
information about his own sotnia of Cossacks, left apparently to look
after themselves somewhere at the back of beyond. He had done rough
work in Central Asia, and had seen rather more help-yourself fighting
than most men of his years. But he was careful never to betray his
superiority, and more than careful to praise on all occasions the
appearance, drill, uniform, and organisation of Her Majesty's White
Hussars. And indeed they were a regiment to be admired. When Lady
Durgan, widow of the late Sir John Durgan, arrived in their station,
and after a short time had been proposed to by every single man at
mess, she put the public sentiment very neatly when she explained that
they were all so nice that unless she could marry them all, including
the colonel and some majors already married, she was not going to
content herself with one hussar. Wherefore she wedded a little man in
a rifle regiment, being by nature contradictious; and the White
Hussars were going to wear crape on their arms, but compromised by
attending the wedding in full force, and lining the aisle with
unutterable reproach. She had jilted them all—from Basset-Holmer the
senior captain to little Mildred the junior subaltern, who could have
given her four thousand a year and a title.
The only persons who did not share the general regard for the White
Hussars were a few thousand gentlemen of Jewish extraction who lived
across the border, and answered to the name of Pathan. They had once
met the regiment officially and for something less than twenty
minutes, but the interview, which was complicated with many
casualties, had filled them with prejudice. They even called the White
Hussars children of the devil and sons of persons whom it would be
perfectly impossible to meet in decent society. Yet they were not
above making their aversion fill their money-belts. The regiment
possessed carbines—beautiful Martini- Henri carbines that would lob a
bullet into an enemy's camp at one thousand yards, and were even
handier than the long rifle. Therefore they were coveted all along the
border, and since demand inevitably breeds supply, they were supplied
at the risk of life and limb for exactly their weight in coined
silver—seven and one-half pounds weight of rupees, or sixteen pounds
sterling reckoning the rupee at par. They were stolen at night by
snaky-haired thieves who crawled on their stomachs under the nose of
the sentries; they disappeared mysteriously from locked arm-racks, and
in the hot weather, when all the barrack doors and windows were open,
they vanished like puffs of their own smoke. The border people desired
them for family vendettas and contingencies. But in the long cold
nights of the northern Indian winter they were stolen most
extensively. The traffic of murder was liveliest among the hills at
that season, and prices ruled high. The regimental guards were first
doubled and then trebled. A trooper does not much care if he loses a
weapon—Government must make it good—but he deeply resents the loss
of his sleep. The regiment grew very angry, and one rifle-thief bears
the visible marks of their anger upon him to this hour. That incident
stopped the burglaries for a time, and the guards were reduced
accordingly, and the regiment devoted itself to polo with unexpected
results; for it beat by two goals to one that very terrible polo corps
the Lushkar Light Horse, though the latter had four ponies apiece for
a short hour's fight, as well as a native officer who played like a
lambent flame across the ground.
They gave a dinner to celebrate the event. The Lushkar team came,
and Dirkovitch came, in the fullest full uniform of a Cossack officer,
which is as full as a dressing-gown, and was introduced to the
Lushkars, and opened his eyes as he regarded. They were lighter men
than the Hussars, and they carried themselves with the swing that is
the peculiar right of the Punjab Frontier Force and all Irregular
Horse. Like everything else in the Service it has to be learnt, but,
unlike many things, it is never forgotten, and remains on the body
The great beam-roofed mess-room of the White Hussars was a sight to
be remembered. All the mess plate was out on the long table—the same
table that had served up the bodies of five officers after a forgotten
fight long and long ago—the dingy, battered standards faced the door
of entrance, clumps of winter-roses lay between the silver
candlesticks, and the portraits of eminent officers deceased looked
down on their successors from between the heads of sambhur, nilghai,
markhor, and, pride of all the mess, two grinning snow-leopards that
had cost Basset- Holmer four months' leave that he might have spent in
England, instead of on the road to Thibet and the daily risk of his
life by ledge, snow- slide, and grassy slope.
The servants in spotless white muslin and the crest of their
regiments on the brow of their turbans waited behind their masters,
who were clad in the scarlet and gold of the White Hussars, and the
cream and silver of the Lushkar Light Horse. Dirkovitch's dull green
uniform was the only dark spot at the board, but his big onyx eyes
made up for it. He was fraternising effusively with the captain of the
Lushkar team, who was wondering how many of Dirkovitch's Cossacks his
own dark wiry down- countrymen could account for in a fair charge. But
one does not speak of these things openly.
The talk rose higher and higher, and the regimental band played
between the courses, as is the immemorial custom, till all tongues
ceased for a moment with the removal of the dinner-slips and the first
toast of obligation, when an officer rising said, 'Mr. Vice, the
Queen,' and little Mildred from the bottom of the table answered, 'The
Queen, God bless her,' and the big spurs clanked as the big men heaved
themselves up and drank the Queen upon whose pay they were falsely
supposed to settle their mess-bills. That Sacrament of the Mess never
grows old, and never ceases to bring a lump into the throat of the
listener wherever he be by sea or by land. Dirkovitch rose with his
'brothers glorious,' but he could not understand. No one but an
officer can tell what the toast means; and the bulk have more
sentiment than comprehension. Immediately after the little silence
that follows on the ceremony there entered the native officer who had
played for the Lushkar team. He could not, of course, eat with the
mess, but he came in at dessert, all six feet of him, with the blue
and silver turban atop, and the big black boots below. The mess rose
joyously as he thrust forward the hilt of his sabre in token of fealty
for the colonel of the White Hussars to touch, and dropped into a
vacant chair amid shouts of: 'Rung ho, Hira Singh!' (which being
translated means 'Go in and win'). 'Did I whack you over the knee, old
man?' 'Ressaidar Sahib, what the devil made you play that kicking pig
of a pony in the last ten minutes?' 'Shabash, Ressaidar Sahib!' Then
the voice of the colonel, 'The health of Ressaidar Hira Singh!'
After the shouting had died away Hira Singh rose to reply, for he
was the cadet of a royal house, the son of a king's son, and knew what
was due on these occasions. Thus he spoke in the vernacular:—'Colonel
Sahib and officers of this regiment. Much honour have you done me.
This will I remember. We came down from afar to play you. But we were
beaten.' ('No fault of yours, Ressaidar Sahib. Played on our own
ground y'know. Your ponies were cramped from the railway. Don't
apologise!') 'Therefore perhaps we will come again if it be so
ordained.' ('Hear! Hear! Hear, indeed! Bravo! Hsh!') 'Then we will
play you afresh' ('Happy to meet you.') 'till there are left no feet
upon our ponies. Thus far for sport.' He dropped one hand on his
sword-hilt and his eye wandered to Dirkovitch lolling back in his
chair. 'But if by the will of God there arises any other game which is
not the polo game, then be assured, Colonel Sahib and officers, that
we will play it out side by side, though THEY,' again his eye sought
Dirkovitch,'though THEY I say have fifty ponies to our one horse.' And
with a deep-mouthed Rung ho! that sounded like a musket-butt on
flagstones he sat down amid leaping glasses.
Dirkovitch, who had devoted himself steadily to the brandy—the
terrible brandy aforementioned—did not understand, nor did the
expurgated translations offered to him at all convey the point.
Decidedly Hira Singh's was the speech of the evening, and the clamour
might have continued to the dawn had it not been broken by the noise
of a shot without that sent every man feeling at his defenceless left
side. Then there was a scuffle and a yell of pain.
'Carbine-stealing again!' said the adjutant, calmly sinking back in
his chair. 'This comes of reducing the guards. I hope the sentries
have killed him.'
The feet of armed men pounded on the verandah flags, and it was as
though something was being dragged.
'Why don't they put him in the cells till the morning?' said the
colonel testily. 'See if they've damaged him, sergeant.'
The mess sergeant fled out into the darkness and returned with two
troopers and a corporal, all very much perplexed.
'Caught a man stealin' carbines, sir,' said the corporal.
'Leastways 'e was crawlin' towards the barricks, sir, past the main
road sentries, an' the sentry 'e sez, sir—'
The limp heap of rags upheld by the three men groaned. Never was
seen so destitute and demoralised an Afghan. He was turbanless,
shoeless, caked with dirt, and all but dead with rough handling. Hira
Singh started slightly at the sound of the man's pain. Dirkovitch took
another glass of brandy.
'WHAT does the sentry say?' said the colonel.
'Sez 'e speaks English, sir,' said the corporal.
'So you brought him into mess instead of handing him over to the
sergeant! If he spoke all the Tongues of the Pentecost you've no
Again the bundle groaned and muttered. Little Mildred had risen
from his place to inspect. He jumped back as though he had been shot.
'Perhaps it would be better, sir, to send the men away,' said he to
the colonel, for he was a much privileged subaltern. He put his arms
round the ragbound horror as he spoke, and dropped him into a chair.
It may not have been explained that the littleness of Mildred lay in
his being six feet four and big in proportion. The corporal seeing
that an officer was disposed to look after the capture, and that the
colonel's eye was beginning to blaze, promptly removed himself and his
men. The mess was left alone with the carbine-thief, who laid his head
on the table and wept bitterly, hopelessly, and inconsolably, as
little children weep.
Hira Singh leapt to his feet. 'Colonel Sahib,' said he, 'that man
is no Afghan, for they weep Ai! Ai! Nor is he of Hindustan, for they
weep Oh! Ho! He weeps after the fashion of the white men, who say Ow!
'Now where the dickens did you get that knowledge, Hira Singh?'
said the captain of the Lushkar team.
'Hear him!' said Hira Singh simply, pointing at the crumpled figure
that wept as though it would never cease.
'He said, "My God!"' said little Mildred. 'I heard him say it.'
The colonel and the mess-room looked at the man in silence. It is a
horrible thing to hear a man cry. A woman can sob from the top of her
palate, or her lips, or anywhere else, but a man must cry from his
diaphragm, and it rends him to pieces.
'Poor devil!' said the colonel, coughing tremendously. 'We ought to
send him to hospital. He's been man-handled.'
Now the adjutant loved his carbines. They were to him as his
grandchildren, the men standing in the first place. He grunted
rebelliously: 'I can understand an Afghan stealing, because he's built
that way. But I can't understand his crying. That makes it worse.'
The brandy must have affected Dirkovitch, for he lay back in his
chair and stared at the ceiling. There was nothing special in the
ceiling beyond a shadow as of a huge black coffin. Owing to some
peculiarity in the construction of the mess-room this shadow was
always thrown when the candles were lighted. It never disturbed the
digestion of the White Hussars. They were in fact rather proud of it.
'Is he going to cry all night?' said the colonel, 'or are we
supposed to sit up with little Mildred's guest until he feels better?'
The man in the chair threw up his head and stared at the mess. 'Oh,
my God!' he said, and every soul in the mess rose to his feet. Then
the Lushkar captain did a deed for which he ought to have been given
the Victoria Cross—distinguished gallantry in a fight against
overwhelming curiosity. He picked up his team with his eyes as the
hostess picks up the ladies at the opportune moment, and pausing only
by the colonel's chair to say, 'This isn't OUR affair, you know, sir,'
led them into the verandah and the gardens. Hira Singh was the last to
go, and he looked at Dirkovitch. But Dirkovitch had departed into a
brandy-paradise of his own. His lips moved without sound and he was
studying the coffin on the ceiling.
'White—white all over,' said Basset-Holmer, the adjutant. 'What a
pernicious renegade he must be! I wonder where he came from?'
The colonel shook the man gently by the arm, and 'Who are you?'
There was no answer. The man stared round the mess-room and smiled
in the colonel's face. Little Mildred, who was always more of a woman
than a man till 'Boot and saddle' was sounded, repeated the question
in a voice that would have drawn confidences from a geyser. The man
only smiled. Dirkovitch at the far end of the table slid gently from
his chair to the floor.
No son of Adam in this present imperfect world can mix the Hussars'
champagne with the Hussars' brandy by five and eight glasses of each
without remembering the pit whence he was digged and descending
thither. The band began to play the tune with which the White Hussars
from the date of their formation have concluded all their functions.
They would sooner be disbanded than abandon that tune; it is a part of
their system. The man straightened himself in his chair and drummed on
the table with his fingers.
'I don't see why we should entertain lunatics,' said the colonel.
'Call a guard and send him off to the cells. We'll look into the
business in the morning. Give him a glass of wine first though.'
Little Mildred filled a sherry-glass with the brandy and thrust it
over to the man. He drank, and the tune rose louder, and he
straightened himself yet more. Then he put out his long-taloned hands
to a piece of plate opposite and fingered it lovingly. There was a
mystery connected with that piece of plate, in the shape of a spring
which converted what was a seven-branched candlestick, three springs
on each side and one in the middle, into a sort of wheel-spoke
candelabrum. He found the spring, pressed it, and laughed weakly. He
rose from his chair and inspected a picture on the wall, then moved on
to another picture, the mess watching him without a word. When he came
to the mantelpiece he shook his head and seemed distressed. A piece of
plate representing a mounted hussar in full uniform caught his eye. He
pointed to it, and then to the mantelpiece with inquiry in his eyes.
'What is it—Oh what is it?' said little Mildred. Then as a mother
might speak to a child, 'That is a horse. Yes, a horse.'
Very slowly came the answer in a thick, passionless guttural—'Yes,
I— have seen. But—where is THE horse?'
You could have heard the hearts of the mess beating as the men drew
back to give the stranger full room in his wanderings. There was no
question of calling the guard.
Again he spoke—very slowly, 'Where is OUR horse?'
There is but one horse in the White Hussars, and his portrait hangs
outside the door of the mess-room. He is the piebald drum-horse, the
king of the regimental band, that served the regiment for seven-and-
thirty years, and in the end was shot for old age. Half the mess tore
the thing down from its place and thrust it into the man's hands. He
placed it above the mantel-piece, it clattered on the ledge as his
poor hands dropped it, and he staggered towards the bottom of the
table, falling into Mildred's chair. Then all the men spoke to one
another something after this fashion, 'The drum-horse hasn't hung over
the mantelpiece since '67.' 'How does he know?' 'Mildred, go and speak
to him again.' 'Colonel, what are you going to do?' 'Oh, dry up, and
give the poor devil a chance to pull himself together.' 'It isn't
possible anyhow. The man's a lunatic.'
Little Mildred stood at the colonel's side talking in his ear.
'Will you be good enough to take your seats please, gentlemen!' he
said, and the mess dropped into the chairs. Only Dirkovitch's seat,
next to little Mildred's, was blank, and little Mildred himself had
found Hira Singh's place. The wide-eyed mess-sergeant filled the
glasses in deep silence. Once more the colonel rose, but his hand
shook and the port spilled on the table as he looked straight at the
man in little Mildred's chair and said hoarsely, 'Mr. Vice, the
Queen.' There was a little pause, but the man sprung to his feet and
answered without hesitation, 'The Queen, God bless her!' and as he
emptied the thin glass he snapped the shank between his fingers.
Long and long ago, when the Empress of India was a young woman and
there were no unclean ideals in the land, it was the custom of a few
messes to drink the Queen's toast in broken glass, to the vast delight
of the mess-contractors. The custom is now dead, because there is
nothing to break anything for, except now and again the word of a
Government, and that has been broken already.
'That settles it,' said the colonel, with a gasp. 'He's not a
sergeant. What in the world is he?'
The entire mess echoed the word, and the volley of questions would
have scared any man. It was no wonder that the ragged, filthy invader
could only smile and shake his head.
From under the table, calm and smiling, rose Dirkovitch, who had
been roused from healthful slumber by feet upon his body. By the side
of the man he rose, and the man shrieked and grovelled. It was a
horrible sight coming so swiftly upon the pride and glory of the toast
that had brought the strayed wits together.
Dirkovitch made no offer to raise him, but little Mildred heaved
him up in an instant. It is not good that a gentleman who can answer
to the Queen's toast should lie at the feet of a subaltern of
The hasty action tore the wretch's upper clothing nearly to the
waist, and his body was seamed with dry black scars. There is only one
weapon in the world that cuts: in parallel lines, and it is neither
the cane nor the cat. Dirkovitch saw the marks, and the pupils of his
eyes dilated. Also his face changed. He said something that sounded
like Shto ve takete, and the man fawning answered, Chetyre.
'What's that?' said everybody together.
'His number. That is number four, you know.' Dirkovitch spoke very
'What has a Queen's officer to do with a qualified number?' said
the Colonel, and an unpleasant growl ran round the table.
'How can I tell?' said the affable Oriental with a sweet smile. 'He
is a—how you have it?—escape—run-a-way, from over there.' He nodded
towards the darkness of the night.
'Speak to him if he'll answer you, and speak to him gently,' said
little Mildred, settling the man in a chair. It seemed most improper
to all present that Dirkovitch should sip brandy as he talked in
purring, spitting Russian to the creature who answered so feebly and
with such evident dread. But since Dirkovitch appeared to understand
no one said a word. All breathed heavily, leaning forward, in the long
gaps of the conversation. The next time that they have no engagements
on hand the White Hussars intend to go to St. Petersburg in a body to
'He does not know how many years ago,' said Dirkovitch, facing the
mess, 'but he says it was very long ago in a war. I think that there
was an accident. He says he was of this glorious and distinguished
regiment in the war.'
'The rolls! The rolls! Holmer, get the rolls!' said little Mildred,
and the adjutant dashed off bare-headed to the orderly-room, where the
muster-rolls of the regiment were kept. He returned just in time to
hear Dirkovitch conclude, 'Therefore, my dear friends, I am most sorry
to say there was an accident which would have been reparable if he had
apologised to that our colonel, which he had insulted.'
Then followed another growl which the colonel tried to beat down.
The mess was in no mood just then to weigh insults to Russian
'He does not remember, but I think that there was an accident, and
so he was not exchanged among the prisoners, but he was sent to
another place— how do you say?—the country. SO, he says, he came
here. He does not know how he came. Eh? He was at Chepany'—the man
caught the word, nodded, and shivered—'at Zhigansk and Irkutsk. I
cannot understand how he escaped. He says, too, that he was in the
forests for many years, but how many years he has forgotten—that with
many things. It was an accident; done because he did not apologise to
that our colonel. Ah!'
Instead of echoing Dirkovitch's sigh of regret, it is sad to record
that the White Hussars livelily exhibited un-Christian delight and
other emotions, hardly restrained by their sense of hospitality.
Holmer flung the frayed and yellow regimental rolls on the table, and
the men flung themselves at these.
'Steady! Fifty-six—fifty-five—fifty-four,' said Holmer. 'Here we
are. "Lieutenant Austin Limmason. MISSING." That was before
Sebastopol. What an infernal shame! Insulted one of their colonels,
and was quietly shipped off. Thirty years of his life wiped out.'
'But he never apologised. Said he'd see him damned first,' chorused
'Poor chap! I suppose he never had the chance afterwards. How did
he come here?' said the colonel.
The dingy heap in the chair could give no answer.
'Do you know who you are?'
It laughed weakly.
'Do you know that you are Limmason—Lieutenant Limmason of the
Swiftly as a shot came the answer, in a slightly surprised tone,
'Yes, I'm Limmason, of course.' The light died out in his eyes, and
the man collapsed, watching every motion of Dirkovitch with terror. A
flight from Siberia may fix a few elementary facts in the mind, but it
does not seem to lead to continuity of thought. The man could not
explain how, like a homing pigeon, he had found his way to his own old
mess again. Of what he had suffered or seen he knew nothing. He
cringed before Dirkovitch as instinctively as he had pressed the
spring of the candlestick, sought the picture of the drum-horse, and
answered to the toast of the Queen. The rest was a blank that the
dreaded Russian tongue could only in part remove. His head bowed on
his breast, and he giggled and cowered alternately.
The devil that lived in the brandy prompted Dirkovitch at this
extremely inopportune moment to make a speech. He rose, swaying
slightly, gripped the table-edge, while his eyes glowed like opals,
'Fellow-soldiers glorious—true friends and hospitables. It was an
accident, and deplorable—most deplorable.' Here he smiled sweetly all
round the mess. 'But you will think of this little, little thing. So
little, is it not? The Czar! Posh! I slap my fingers—I snap my
fingers at him. Do I believe in him? No! But in us Slav who has done
nothing, HIM I believe. Seventy—how much—millions peoples that have
done nothing—not one thing. Posh! Napoleon was an episode.' He banged
a hand on the table. 'Hear you, old peoples, we have done nothing in
the world— out here. All our work is to do; and it shall be done, old
peoples. Get a-way!' He waved his hand imperiously, and pointed to the
man. 'You see him. He is not good to see. He was just one little—oh,
so little— accident, that no one remembered. Now he is THAT! So will
you be, brother-soldiers so brave—so will you be. But you will never
come back. You will all go where he is gone, or'—he pointed to the
great coffin- shadow on the ceiling, and muttering, 'Seventy
millions—get a-way, you old peoples,' fell asleep.
'Sweet, and to the point,' said little Mildred. 'What's the use of
getting wroth? Let's make this poor devil comfortable.'
But that was a matter suddenly and swiftly taken from the loving
hands of the White Hussars. The lieutenant had returned only to go
away again three days later, when the wail of the Dead March, and the
tramp of the squadrons, told the wondering Station, who saw no gap in
the mess-table, that an officer of the regiment had resigned his
And Dirkovitch, bland, supple, and always genial, went away too by
a night train. Little Mildred and another man saw him off, for he was
the guest of the mess, and even had he smitten the colonel with the
open hand, the law of that mess allowed no relaxation of hospitality.
'Good-bye, Dirkovitch, and a pleasant journey,' said little
'Au revoir,' said the Russian.
'Indeed! But we thought you were going home?'
'Yes, but I will come again. My dear friends, is that road shut?'
He pointed to where the North Star burned over the Khyber Pass.
'By Jove! I forgot. Of course. Happy to meet you, old man, any time
you like. Got everything you want? Cheroots, ice, bedding? That's all
right. Well, au revoir, Dirkovitch.'
'Um,' said the other man, as the tail-lights of the train grew
Little Mildred answered nothing, but watched the North Star and
hummed a selection from a recent Simla burlesque that had much
delighted the White Hussars. It ran—
I'm sorry for Mister Bluebeard,
I'm sorry to cause him pain;
But a terrible spree there's sure to be
When he comes back again.