“Can’t make up a four?”
“Never again with you, Robin. ’Tisn’t good enough, old man.”
“Seeking what he may devour,” murmured a third voice from behind a newspaper. “Stop the punkah, and make him go away.”
“Don’t talk of it on a night like this. It’s enough to give a man fits. You’ve no enterprise. Here I’ve taken the trouble to come over after dinner——”
“On the off-chance of skinning some one. I don’t believe you ever crossed a horse for pleasure.”
“That’s true, I never did—and there are only two Johnnies in the Club.”
“They’ve all gone off to the Gaff.”
“Wah! Wah! They must be pretty hard up for amusement. Help me to a split.”
“Split in this weather! Hi, bearer, do burra — burra whiskey-peg lao, and just put all the barf into them that you can find.”
The newspaper came down with a rustle, as the reader said:
“How the deuce d’you expect a man to improve his mind when you two are bukking about drinks? Qui hai! Mera wasti bhi.”
“Oh! you’re alive, are you? I thought pegs would fetch you out of that. Game for a little poker?”
“Poker—poker—red-hot poker! Saveloy, you’re too generous. Can’t you let a man die in peace?”
“Who’s going to die?”
“I am, please the pigs, if it gets much hotter and that bearer doesn’t bring the peg quickly.”
“All right. Die away, mon ami. Only don’t do it in the Club, that’s all. Can’t have it littered up with dead members. Houligan would object.”
“By Jove! I think I can imagine old Houligan doing it. ‘Member dead in the ante-room? Good Gud! Bless my soul! Impossible to run a Club this way. Call the Babu and see if his last month’s bill is paid. Not paid! Good Gud! Bless my soul! Impossible to run a Club this way. Babu, attach that body till the bill is paid.’ Revel, you might just hurry up your dying once in a way to give us the pleasure of seeing Houligan perform.”
“I’ll die legitimately,” said Revel. “I’m not going to create a fresh scandal in the station. I’ll wait for heat-apoplexy, or whatever is going, to come and fetch me.”
“This is pukka hot-weather talk,” said Saveloy. “I come over for a little honest poker, and find two moderately sensible men, Revel and Dallston, talking tombs. I’m sorry I’ve thrown away my valuable evening.”
“D’you expect us to talk about buttercups and daisies, then?” said Dallston.
“No, but there’s some sort of medium between those and Sudden Death.”
“There isn’t. I haven’t seen a daisy for seven years, and now I want to die,” said Revel, plunging luxuriously into his peg.
“I knew a Johnnie on the Frontier once who did,” began Dallston meditatively.
“Half a minute. Bearer, cherut lao! Tobacco soothes the nerves when a man is expecting to hear a whacker. We know what your Frontier stories are, Martha.”
Dallston had once, in a misguided moment, taken the part of Martha in the burlesque of Faust, and the nickname stuck.
“’Tisn’t a whacker, it’s a fact. He told me so himself.”
“They always do, Martha. I’ve noticed that before. But what did he tell you?”
“He told me that he had died.”
“Was that all? Explain him.”
“It was this way. The man went down with a bad go of fever and was off his head. About the second day it struck him in the middle of the night.”
“Steady the Buffs! Martha, you aren’t an Irishman yet.”
“Never mind. It’s too hot to put it correctly. In the middle of the night he woke up quite calm, and it struck him that it would be a good thing to die—just as it might ha’ struck him that it would be a good thing to put ice on his head. He lay on his bed and thought it over, and the more he thought about it, the better sort of bundobust it seemed to be. He was quite calm, you know, and he said that he could have sworn that he had no fever on him.”
“Well, what happened?”
“Oh, he got up and loaded his revolver—he remembers all this—and let fly, with the muzzle to his temple. The thing didn’t go off, so he turned it up and found he’d forgot to load one chamber.”
“Better stop the tale there. We can guess what’s coming.”
“Hang it! It’s a true yam. Well, he jammed the thing to his head again, and it missed fire, and he said that he felt ready to cry with rage, he was so disgusted. So he took it by the muzzle and hit himself on the head with it.”
“Good man! Didn’t it go off then?”
“No, but the blow knocked him silly, and he thought he was dead. He was awfully pleased, for he had been fiddling over the show for nearly half an hour. He dropped down and died. When he got his wits again, he was shaking with the fever worse than ever, but he had sense enough to go and knock up the doctor and give himself into his charge as a lunatic. Then he went clean off his head till the fever wore out.”
“That’s a good story,” said Revel critically. “I didn’t think you had it in you at this season of the year.”
“I can believe it,” said the man they called Saveloy. “Fever makes one do all sorts of queer things. I suppose your friend was mad with it when he discovered it would be so healthy to die.”
“S’pose so. The fever must have been so bad that he felt all right—same way that a man who is nearly mad with drink gets to look sober. Well, anyhow, there was a man who died.”
“Did he tell you what it felt like?”
“He said that he was awfully happy until his fever came back and shook him up. Then he was sick with fear. I don’t wonder. He’d had rather a narrow escape.”
“That’s nothing,” said Saveloy. “I know a man who lived.”
“So do I,” said Revel. “Lots of ’em, confound ’em.”
“Now, this takes Martha’s story, and it’s quite true.”
“They always are,” said Martha. “I’ve noticed that before.”
“Never mind, I’ll forgive you. But this happened to me. Since you are talking tombs, I’ll assist at the seance. It was in ’82 or ’88, I have forgotten which. Anyhow, it was when I was on the Utamamula Canal Headworks, and I was chumming with a man called Stovey. You’ve never met him because he belongs to the Bombay side, and if he isn’t really dead by this he ought to be somewhere there now. He was a pukka sweep, and I hated him. We divided the Canal bimgalow between us, and we kept strictly to our own side of the buildings.”
“Hold on! I call. What was Stovey to look at?” said Revel.
“Living picture of the King of Spades—a blackish, greasy sort of ruffian who hadn’t any pretence of manners or form. He used to dine in the kit he had been messing about the Canal in all day, and I don’t believe he ever washed. He had the embankments to look after, and I was in charge of the headworks, but he was always contriving to fall foul of me if he possibly could.”
“I know that sort of man. Mullane of Ghoridasah’s built that way.”
“Don’t know Mullane, but Stovey was a sweep. Canal work isn’t exactly cheering, and it doesn’t take you into much society. We were like a couple of rats in a burrow, grubbing and scooping all day and turning in at night into the barn of a bungalow. Well, this man Stovey didn’t get fever. He was so coated with dirt that I don’t believe the fever could have got at him. He just began to go mad.”
“Cheerful! What were the symptoms?”
“Well, his naturally vile temper grew infamous. It was really unsafe to speak to him, and he always seemed anxious to murder a coolie or two. With me, of course, he restrained himself a little, but he sulked like a bear for days and days together. As he was the only European society within sixty miles, you can imagine how nice it was for me. He’d sit at table and sulk and stare at the opposite wall by the hour—instead of doing his work. When I pointed out that the Government didn’t send us into these cheerful places to twiddle our thimibs, he glared like a beast. Oh, he was a thorough hog! He had a lot of other endearing tricks, but the worst was when he began to pray.”
“Began to—how much?”
“Pray. He’d got hold of an old copy of the War Cry and used to read it at meals; and I suppose that that, on the top of tough goat, disordered his intellect. One night I heard him in his room groaning and talking at a fearful rate. Next morning I asked him if he’d been taken worse. ‘I’ve been engaged in prayer,’ he said, looking as black as thunder. ‘A man’s spiritual concerns are his own property.’ One night—he’d kept up these spiritual exercises for about ten days, growing queerer and queerer every day—he said ‘ Good-night’ after dinner, and got up and shook hands with me.”
“Bad sign, that,” said Revel, sucking industriously at his cheroot.
“At first I couldn’t make out what the man wanted. No fellow shakes hands with a fellow he’s living with—least of all such a beast as Stovey. However, I was civil, but the minute after he’d left the room it struck me what he was going to do. If he hadn’t shaken hands I’d have taken no notice, I suppose. This unusual effusion put me on my guard.”
“Curious thing! You can nearly always tell when a Johnnie means pegging out. He gives himself away by some softening. It’s human nature. What did you do?”
“Called him back, and asked him what the this and that he meant by interfering with my coolies in the day. He was generally hampering my men, but I had never taken any notice of his vagaries till then. In another minute we were arguing away, hammer and tongs. If it had been any other man I’d ’a’ simply thrown the lamp at his head. He was calling me all the mean names under the sum, accusing me of misusing my authority and goodness only knows what all. When he had talked himself down one stretch, I had only to say a few words to start him off again, as fresh as a daisy. On my word, this jabbering went on for nearly three hours.”
“Why didn’t you get coolies and have him tied up, if you thought he was mad?” asked Revel.
“Not a safe business, believe me. Wrongful restraint on your own responsibility of a man nearly your own standing looks ugly. Well, Stovey went on bullying me and complaining about everything I’d ever said or done since I came on the Canal, till—he went fast asleep.”
“Went off dead asleep, just as if he’d been drugged. I thought the brute had had a fit at first, but there he was, with his head hanging a little on one side and his mouth open. I knocked up his bearer and told him to take the man to bed. We carried him off and shoved him on his charpoy. He was still asleep, and I didn’t think it worth while to undress him. The fit, whatever it was, had worked itself out, and he was limp and used up. But as I was going to leave the room, and went to turn the lamp down, I looked in the glass and saw that he was watching me between his eyelids. When I spun round he seemed asleep. ‘That’s your game, is it?’ I thought, and I stood over him long enough to see that he was shamming. Then I cast an eye roumd the room and saw his Martini in the comer. We were all bullumteers on the Canal works. I couldn’t find the cartridges, so to make all serene I knocked the breech-pin out with the cleaning-rod and went to my own room. I didn’t go to sleep for some time. About one o’clock—our rooms were only divided by a door of sorts, and my bed was close to it—I heard my friend open a chest of drawers. Then he went for the Martini. Of course, the breechblock came out with a rattle. Then he went back to bed again, and I nearly laughed.
“Next morning he was doing the genial, hail-fellow-well-met trick. Said he was afraid he’d lost his temper overnight, and apologised for it. About half way through breakfast—he was talking thickly about everything and anything—he said he’d come to the conclusion that a beard was a beastly nuisance and made one stuffy. He was going to shave his. Would I lend him my razors? ‘Oh, you’re a crafty beast, you are,’ I said to myself. I told him that I was of the other opinion, and finding my razors nearly worn out had chucked them into the Canal only the night before. He gave me one look under his eyebrows and went on with his breakfast. I was in a stew lest the man should cut his throat with one of the breakfast knives, so I kept one eye on him most of the time.
“Before I left the bungalow I caught old Jeewun Singh, one of the mistries on the gates, and gave him strict orders that he was to keep in sight of the Sahib wherever he went and whatever he did; and if he did or tried to do anything foolish, such as jumping down the well, Jeewim Singh was to stop him. The old man tumbled at once, and I was easier in my mind when I saw how he was shadowing Stovey up and down the works. Then I sat down and wrote a letter to old Baggs, the Civil Surgeon at Chemanghath, about sixty miles off, telling him how we stood. The runner left about three o’clock. Jeewun Singh turned up at the end of the day and gave a full, true and particular account of Stovey’s doings. D’you know what the brute had done?”
“Spare us the agony. Kill him straight off, Saveloy!”
“He’d stopped the runner, opened the bag, read my letter and torn it up! There were only two letters in the bag, both of which I’d written. I was pretty average angry, but I lay low. At dinner he said he’d got a touch of dysentery and wanted some chlorodyne. For a man anxious to depart this life he was about as badly equipped as you could wish. Hadn’t even a medicine-chest to play with. He was no more suffering from dysentery than I, but I said I’d give him the chlorodyne, and so I did—fifteen drops, mixed in a wine-glass, and when he asked for the bottle I said that I hadn’t any more.
“That night he began praying again, and I just lay in bed and shuddered. He was invoking the most blasphemous curses on my head—all in a whisper, for fear of waking me up—for frustrating what he called his ‘great and holy purpose.’ You never heard anything like it. But as long as he was praying I knew he was alive, and he ran his praying half through the night.
“Well, for the next ten days he was apparently quite rational; but I watched him and told Jeewun Singh to watch him like a cat. I suppose he wanted to throw me off my guard, but I wasn’t to be thrown. I grew thin watching him. Baggs wrote in to say he had gone on tour and couldn’t be found anywhere in paiticular for another six weeks. It was a ghastly time.
“One day& old Jeewun Singh turned up with a bit of paper that Storey had given to one of the lohars as a naksha. I thought it was mean work spying into another man’s very plans, but when I saw what was on the paper I gave old Jeewun Singh a rupee. It was a be-autiful little breech-pin. The one-idead idiot had gone back to Martini! I never dreamt of such persistence. ‘Tell me when the lohar gives it to the Sahib,’ I said, and I felt more comfy for a few days. Even if Jeewun Singh hadn’t split I would have known when the new breechpin was made. The brute came in to dinner with a dashed confident, triumphant air, as if he’d done me in the eye at last; and all through dinner he was fiddling in his waistcoat pocket. He went to bed early. I went, too, and I put my head against the door and listened like a woman. I must have been shivering in my pyjamas for about two hours before my friend went for the dismantled Martin! He could not get the breech-pin to fit at first. He rummaged about, and then I heard a file go. That seemed to make too much noise to suit his fancy, so he opened the door and went out into the compound, and I heard him, about fifty yards off, filing in the dark at that breech-pin as if he had been possessed. Well, he was you know. Then he came back to the light, cursing me for keeping him out of his rest and the peace of Abraham’s bosom. As soon as I heard him taking up the Martini, I ran round to his door and tried to enter gaily, as the stage directions say. ‘Lend me your gun, old man, if you’re awake,’ I said. ‘There’s a howling big brute of a pariah in my room, and I want to get a shot at it.’ I pretended not to notice that he was standing over the gun, but just pranced up and caught hold of it. He turned round with a jump and said: ‘I’m sick of this. I’ll see that dog, and if it’s another of your lies I’ll ——’ You know I’m not a moral man.”
“Hear! hearl” drowsily from Martha.
“But I simply daren’t repeat what he said. ‘All right!’ I said, still hanging on to the gun.
‘Come along and we’ll bowl him over.’ He followed me into my room with a face like a fiend in torment And, as truly as I’m yarning here, there was a huge brindled beast of a pariah sitting on my bed!”
“Tall, sir, tall. But go on. The audience is now awake.”
“Hang it! Could I have invented that pariah? Stovey dropped of the gun and flopped down in a comer and yowled. I went ‘ee ki ri ki re!’ like a woman in hysterics, pitched the gun forward and loosed off through a window.”
“And the pariah?”
“He quitted for the time being. Stovey was in an awful state. He swore the animal hadn’t been there when I called him. That was true enough. I firmly believe Providence put it there to save me from being killed by the infuriated Stovey.”
“You’ve too lively a belief in Providence altogether. What happened?”
“Stovey tried to recover himself and pass it all over, but he let me keep the gun and went to bed. About two days afterwards old Baggs turned up on tour, and I told him Stovey wanted watching—more than I could give him. I don’t know whether Baggs or the pi did it, but he didn’t throw any more suicidal splints. I was transferred a little while afterwards.”
“Ever meet the man again?”
“Yes; once at Sheik Katan dâk bungalow— trailing the big brindle pi after him.”
“Oh, it was real, then. I thought it was arranged for the occasion.”
“Not a bit. It was a pukka pi. Stovey seemed to remember me in the same way that a horse seems to remember. I fancy his brain was a little cloudy. We tiffined together— after the pi had been fed, if you please—and Stovey said to me: ‘See that dog? He saved my life once. Oh, by the way, I believe you were there, too, weren’t you?’ I shouldn’t care to work with Stovey again.”
There was a holy pause in the smoking-room of the Toopare Club.
“What I like about Saveloy’s play,” said Martha, looking at the ceiling, “is the beautifully artistic way in which he follows up a flush with a full. Go to bed, old man!’