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Ortheris, Learoyd & Mulvaney

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Ortheris, Learoyd & Mulvaney
Leonaur Original
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Author(s): Rudyard Kipling
Date Published: 2008/11
Page Count: 184
Softcover ISBN-13: 978-1-84677-533-8
Hardcover ISBN-13: 978-1-84677-534-5

Kipling’s famous soldiers march again

Rudyard Kipling's famous 'Soldiers Three' stories need little introduction here. The exciting, humorous, poignant and enchanting tales of his military threesome at large in peace and war, in love, in the guardhouse and intoxicated, are well known and well regarded by all. Here are the British in India of the Raj period, that the Soldier Sahibs in khaki knew, for us all to enjoy over and over again. Whether up to dodges, dealing with troublesome ghosts or sniping deserters, the Irishman, the Cockney and the Yorkshireman continue to entertain us all. Now the Soldiers Three stories have been brought together in one volume by Leonaur in softcover or hard cover with dust jacket for collectors.

“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.”<br>
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 grey 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.<br> Then there was a belt-loosening silence about the fires, and the even breathing of the crowded earth took up the story.<br>
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 honored 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:<br><br>
<I>Youth’s daring spirit, manhood’s fire,<br>
Firm hand and eagle eye,<br>
Must he acquire who would aspire<br>
To see the grey boar die.</I><br><br>
Today, 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.<br>
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.<br><br>
* * * * * * * *<br><br>
“You’re a bloodthirsty little mosquito,” said Mulvaney, blowing blue clouds into the air. “But I suppose I will have to come wid you. Pwhere’s Jock?”<br>
“Gone out with the Mixed Pickles, ’cause ’e thinks ’isself a bloomin’ marksman,” said Ortheris, with scorn,
The “Mixed Pickles” were a detachment of picked shots, generally employed in clearing spurs of hills when the enemy were too impertinent. This taught the young officers how to handle men, and did not do the enemy much harm. Mulvaney and Ortheris strolled out of camp, and passed the Aurangabadis going to their road-making.<br>
“You’ve got to sweat today,” said Ortheris, genially. “We’re going to get your man. You didn’t knock ’im out last night by any chance, any of you?”<br>
“No. The pig went away mocking us. I had one shot at him,” said a private, “He’s my cousin, and I ought to have cleared our dishonour. But good luck to you.”<br>
They went cautiously to the north hill, Ortheris leading, because, as he explained, “this is a long-range show, an’ I’ve got to do it.” His was an almost passionate devotion to his rifle, which, by barrack-room report, he was supposed to kiss every night before turning in. Charges and scuffles he held in contempt, and, when they were inevitable, slipped between Mulvaney and Learoyd, bidding them to fight for his skin as well as their own. They never failed him. He trotted along, questing like a hound on a broken trail, through the wood of the north hill. At last he was satisfied, and threw himself down on the soft pine-needle slope that commanded a clear view of the watercourse and a brown, bare hillside beyond it. The trees made a scented darkness in which an army corps could have hidden from the sun-glare without.<br>
“’Ere’s the tail o’ the wood,” said Ortheris. “’E’s got to come up the watercourse, ’cause it gives ’im cover. We’ll lay ’ere. ’Tain’t not arf so bloomin’ dusty neither.”<br>
He buried his nose in a clump of scentless white violets. No one had come to tell the flowers that the season of their strength was long past, and they had bloomed merrily in the twilight of the pines.<br>
“This is something like,” he said, luxuriously. “Wot a ’evinly clear drop for a bullet acrost! How much d’you make it, Mulvaney?”<br>
“Seven hunder. Maybe a trifle less, bekaze the air’s so thin.”<br>
Wop! Wop! Wop! went a volley of musketry on the rear face of the north hill.<br>
“Curse them Mixed Pickles firin’ at nothin’! They’ll scare arf the country.”<br>
“Thry a sightin’ shot in the middle of the row,” said Mulvaney, the man of many wiles. “There’s a red rock yonder he’ll be sure to pass. Quick!”<br>
Ortheris ran his sight up to six hundred yards and fired. The bullet threw up a feather of dust by a clump of gentians at the base of the rock.<br>
“Good enough!” said Ortheris, snapping the scale down. “You snick your sights to mine or a little lower. You’re always firin’ high. But remember, first shot to me, O Lordy! but it’s a lovely afternoon.”<br>
The noise of the firing grew louder, and there was a tramping of men in the wood. The two lay very quiet, for they knew that the British soldier is desperately prone to fire at anything that moves or calls. Then Learoyd appeared, his tunic ripped across the breast by a bullet, looking ashamed of himself. He flung down on the pine-needles, breathing in snorts.
“One o’ them damned gardeners o’ th’ Pickles,” said he, fingering the rent. “Firin’ to th’ right flank, when he knowed I was there. If I knew who he was I’d ’a’ rippen the hide offan him. Look at ma tunic!”<br>
“That’s the spishil trustability av a marksman. Train him to hit a fly wid a stiddy rest at seven hunder, an’ he loose on anythin’ he sees or hears up to th’ mile. You’re well out av that fancy-firin’ gang, Jock. Stay here.”<br>
“Bin firin’ at the bloomin’ wind in the bloomin’ treetops,” said Ortheris, with a chuckle. “I’ll show you some firin’ later on.”<br>
They wallowed in the pine-needles, and the sun warmed them where they lay. The Mixed Pickles ceased firing, and returned to camp, and left the wood to a few scared apes. The watercourse lifted up its voice in the silence, and talked foolishly to the rocks. Now and again the dull thump of a blasting charge three miles away told that the Aurangabadis were in difficulties with their road-making. The men smiled as they listened and lay still, soaking in the warm leisure. Presently Learoyd, between the whiffs of his pipe—<br>
“Seems queer—about ’im yonder—desertin’ at all.”<br>
“’E’ll be a bloomin’ side queerer when I’ve done with ’im,” said Ortheris. They were talking in whispers, for the stillness of the wood and the desire of slaughter lay heavy upon them.<br><br>
* * * * * * * *<br><br>
Once upon a time, very far from England, there lived three men who loved each other so greatly that neither man nor woman could come between them. They were in no sense refined, nor to be admitted to the outer-door mats of decent folk, because they happened to be private soldiers in Her Majesty’s Army; and private soldiers of our service have small time for self-culture. Their duty is to keep themselves and their accoutrements specklessly clean, to refrain from getting drunk more often than is necessary, to obey their superiors, and to pray for a war. All these things my friends accomplished; and of their own motion threw in some fighting-work for which the Army Regulations did not call. Their fate sent them to serve in India, which is not a golden country, though poets have sung otherwise. There men die with great swiftness, and those who live suffer many and curious things. I do not think that my friends concerned themselves much with the social or political aspects of the East. They attended a not unimportant war on the northern frontier, another one on our western boundary, and a third in Upper Burma. Then their regiment sat still to recruit, and the boundless monotony of cantonment life was their portion. They were drilled morning and evening on the same dusty parade-ground. They wandered up and down the same stretch of dusty white road, attended the same church and the same grog-shop, and slept in the same lime-washed barn of a barrack for two long years.<br>There was Mulvaney, the father in the craft, who had served with various regiments from Bermuda to Halifax, old in war, scarred, reckless, resourceful, and in his pious hours an unequalled soldier. To him turned for help and comfort six and a half feet of slow-moving, heavy-footed Yorkshireman, born on the wolds, bred in the dales, and educated chiefly among the carriers’ carts at the back of York railway-station. His name was Learoyd, and his chief virtue an unmitigated patience which helped him to win fights. How Ortheris, a fox-terrier of a Cockney, ever came to be one of the trio, is a mystery which even today I cannot explain. “There was always three av us,” Mulvaney used to say. “An’ by the grace av God, so long as our service lasts, three av us they’ll always be. ’Tis betther so.”<br>
They desired no companionship beyond their own, and it was evil for any man of the regiment who attempted dispute with them. Physical argument was out of the question as regarded Mulvaney and the Yorkshireman; and assault on Ortheris meant a combined attack from these twain—a business which no five men were anxious to have on their hands. Therefore they flourished, sharing their drinks, their tobacco, and their money; good luck and evil; battle and the chances of death; life and the chances of happiness from Calicut in southern, to Peshawur in northern India.<br>
Through no merit of my own it was my good fortune to be in a measure admitted to their friendship—frankly by Mulvaney from the beginning, sullenly and with reluctance by Learoyd, and suspiciously by Ortheris, who held to it that no man not in the Army could fraternize with a red-coat. “Like to like,” said he. “I’m a bloomin’ sodger—he’s a bloomin’ civilian. ’Tain’t natural—that’s all.”<br>
But that was not all. They thawed progressively, and in the thawing told me more of their lives and adventures than I am ever likely to write.