вторник, 1 мая 2007 г.

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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 manoeuvre, neatly
carried out.
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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 investigations, '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. Erbsenwurst, 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 water-proof 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.'