IT was the General Officer Commandingi riding down the Mall, on the Arab with the perky tail, and he condescended to explain some of the mysteries of his profession. But the point on which he dwelt most pompously was the ease with which the Private Thomas Atkins could be “handled,” as he called it. “Only feed him and give him a little work to do, and you can do anything with him,” said the General Officer Commanding. “There’s no refinement about Tommy, you know; and one is very like another. They’ve all the same ideas and traditions and prejudices. They’re all big children. Fancy any man in his senses shooting about these hills.” There was the report of a shot-gun in the valley. “I suppose they’ve hit a dog. Happy as the day is long when they’re out shooting dogs. Just like a big child is Tommy,” He touched up his horse and cantered away. There was a sound of angry voices down the hillside.
“All right, you soor—I won’t never forget this—mind you, not as long as I live, and s’ ’elp me—I’ll——” The sentence finished in what could be represented by a blaze of asterisks.
A deeper voice cut it short: “Oh, no, you won’t, neither! Look a-here, you young smitcher. If I was to take yer up now, and knock off your ’ead again’ that tree, could ye say anythin’? No, nor yet do anythin’. If I was to—— Ah! you would, would you? There!” Some one had evidently sat down with a thud, and was swearing nobly. I slid over the edge of the khud, down through the long grass, and fetched up, after the manner of a sledge, with my feet in the broad of the back of Gunner Barnabas in the Mountain Battery, my friend, the very strong man. He was sitting upon a man—a khaki-coloured volcano of blasphemy—and was preparing to smoke. My sudden arrival threw him off his balance for a moment. Then, readjusting his chair, he bade me good-day.
“’Im an’ me ’ave bin ’avin’ an argument,” said Gunner Barnabas placidly. “I was going for to half kill him an’ ’eave ’im into the bushes ’ere, but, seein’ that you ’ave come, sir, and very welcome when you do come, we will ’ave a court-martial instead. Shacklock, are you willin’?” The volcano, who had been swearing uninterruptedly through this oration, expressed a desire, in general and particular terms, to see Gimner Barnabas in Torment and the “civilian” on the next gridiron.
Private Shacklock was a tow-haired, scrofulous boy of about two-and-twenty. His nose was bleeding profusely, and the live air attested that he had been drinking quite as much as was good for him. He lay, stomach-down, on a little level spot on the hillside; for Gunner Barnabas was sitting between his shoulderblades, and his was not a weight to wriggle under. Private Shacklock could barely draw breath to swear, but he did the best that in him lay. “Amen,” said Gunner Barnabas piously, when an unusually brilliant string of oaths came to an end. “Seein’ that this gentleman ’ere has never seen the inside o’ the orsepitals you’ve gotten in, and the clinks you’ve been chucked into like a hay-bundle, per-haps, Privite Shacklock, you will stop. You are a-makin’ of ’im sick.” Private Shacklock said that he was pleased to hear it, and would have continued his speech, but his breath suddenly went from him, and the unfinished curse died out in a gasp. Gunner Barnabas had put up one of his huge feet. “There’s just enough room now for you to breathe, Shacklock,” said he, “an’ not enough for you to try to interrupt the conversashin I’m a-havin’ with this gentleman. Choop!” Turning to me. Gunner Barnabas pulled at his pipe, but showed no hurry to open the “conversashin.” I felt embarrassed, for, after all, the thus strangely unearthed difference between the Gunner and the Line man was no affair of mine. “Don’t you go,” said Gunner Barnabas. He had evidently been deeply moved by something. He dropped his head between his fists and looked steadily at me.
“I met this child ’ere,” said he, “at Deelally—a fish-back recruity as ever was. I knowed ’im at Deelally, and I give ’im a latherin’ at Deelally all for to keep ’im straight, ’e bein’ such as wants a latherin’ an’ knowin’ nuthin’ o’ the ways o’ this country. Then I meets ’im up here, a butterfly-huntin’ as innercent as you please—convalessin’. I goes out with ’im butterfly-huntin’, and, as you see ’ere, a-shootin’. The gun betwixt us.” I saw then, what I had overlooked before, a Company fowling-piece lying among some boulders far down the hill. Gunner Barnabas continued: “I should ha’ seen where he had a-bin to get that drink inside o’ ’im. Presently, ’e misses summat. ‘You’re a bloomin’ fool,’ sez I. ‘If that had been a Pathan, now!’ I sez. ‘Damn yoiu’ Pathans, an’ you, too,’ sez ’e. ‘I strook it.’ ‘You did not,’ I sez, ‘I saw the bark fly.’ ‘Stick to your bloomin’ pop-guns,’ sez ’e, ‘an’ don’t talk to a better man than you.’ I laughed there, knowin’ what I was an’ what ’e was. ‘You laugh?’ sez he. ‘I laugh’ I sez, ‘Shaddock, an’ for what should I not laugh?’ sez I. ‘Then go an’ laugh in Hell’ sez ’e, ‘for I’ll ’ave none of your laughin’’ With that ’e brings up the gun yonder and looses off, and I stretches ’im there, and guv him a little to keep ’im quiet, and puts ’im under, an’ while I was thinkin’ what nex’, you comes down the ’ill, an’ finds us as we was.”
The Private was the Gunner’s prey—I knew that the affair had fallen as the Gunner had said, for my friend is constitutionally incapable of lying—and I recognised that in his hands lay the boy’s fate.
“What do you think?” said Gunner Barnabas, after a silence broken only by the convulsive breathing of the boy he was sitting on. “I think nothing,” I said. “He didn’t go at me. He’s your property.” Then an idea occurred to me. “Hand him over to his own Company. They’ll school him half dead.” “Got no Comp’ny,” said Gimner Barnabas. “’E’s a conv’lessint draft—all sixes an’ sevens. Don’t matter to them what he did.” “Thrash him yourself, then,” I said. Gunner Barnabas looked at the man and smiled; then caught up an arm, as a mother takes up the dimpled arm of a child, and ran the sleeve and shirt up to the elbow. “Look at that!” he said. It was a pitiful arm, lean and muscleless. “Can you mill a man with an arm like that—such as I would like to mill him, an’ such as he deserves? I tell you, sir, an’ I am not smokin’ ( swaggering), as you see—I could take that man— Sodger ’e is, Lord ’elp ‘im!—an’ twis’ off ’is arms an’ ’is legs as if ’e was a naked crab. See here!”
Before I could realise what was going to happen, Gimner Barnabas rose up, stooped, and takmg the wretched Private Shacklock by two points of grasp, heaved him up above his head. The boy kicked once or twice, and then was still. He was very white. “I could now,” said Gunner Barnabas, “I could now chuck this man where I like. Chuck him like a lump o’ beef, an’ it would not be too much for him if I chucked. Can I thrash such a man with both ’ands? No, nor yet with my right ’and tied behind my back, an’ my lef’ in a sling,”
He dropped Private Shaddock on the ground and sat upon him as before. The boy groaned as the weight settled, but there was a look in his white-lashed, red eyes that was not pleasant.
“I do not know what I will do,” said Gunner Barnabas, rocking himself to and fro. “I know ’is breed, an’ the way o’ the likes o’ them. If I was in ’is Comp’ny, an’ this ’ad ’appened, an’ I ’ad struck ’im, as I would ha’ struck him, ’twould ha’ all passed off an’ bin forgot till the drink was in ’im again—a month, maybe, or six, maybe. An’ when the drink was frizzin’ in ’is ’ead he would up and loose off in the night or the day or the evenin’. All acause of that millin’ that ’e would ha’ forgotten in betweens. That I would be dead—killed by the likes o’ ’im, an’ me the next strongest man but three in the British Army!”
Private Shacklock, not so hardly pressed as he had been, found breath to say that if he could only get hold of the fowling-piece again the strongest man but three in the British Army would be seriously crippled for the rest of his days. “Hear that!” said Gunner Barnabas, sitting heavily to silence his chair. “Hear that, you that think things is funny to put into the papers! He would shoot me, ’e would, now; an’ so long as he’s drunk, or comin’ out o’ the drink, ’e will want to shoot me. Look a-here!”
He turned the boy’s head sideways, his hand round the nape of the neck, his thumb touching the angle of the jaw. “What do you call those marks?” They were the white scars of scrofula, with which Shacklock was eaten up. I told Gunner Barnabas this. “I don’t know what that means. I call ’em murder-marks an’ signs. If a man ’as these things on ’im, an’ drinks, so long as ’e’s drunk, ’e’s mad—a looney. But that doesn’t ’elp if ’e kills you. Look a-here, an’ here!” The marks were thick on the jaw and neck. “Stubbs ’ad ’em,” said Gunner Barnabas to himself, “an’ Lancy ’ad ’em, an’ Duggard ’ad ’em, an’ wot’s come to them? You’ve got ’em,” he said, addressing himself to the man he was handling like a roped calf, “an’ sooner or later you’ll go with the rest of ’em. But this time I will not do anything—exceptin’ keep you here till the drink’s dead in you.”
Gunner Barnabas resettled himself and continued: “Twice this afternoon, Shaddock, you ’ave been so near dyin’ that I know no man more so. Once was when I stretched you, an’ might ha’ wiped off your face with my boot as you was lyin’; an’ once was when I lifted you up in my fists. Was you afraid, Shacklock?”
“I were,” murmured the half-stifled soldier.
“An’ once more I will show you how near you can go to Kingdom Come in my ’ands.” He knelt by Shaddock’s side, the boy lying still as death. “If I was to hit you here,” said he, “I would break your chest, an’ you would die. If I was to put my ’and here, an’ my other ’and here, I would twis’ your neck, an’ you would die, Privite Shacklock. If I was to put my knees here an’ put your ’ead so, I would pull off your ’ead, Privite Shacklock, an’ you would die. If you think as how I am a liar, say so, an’ I’ll show you. Do you think so?”
“No,” whispered Private Shacklock, not daring to move a muscle, for Bamabas’s hand was on his neck.
“Now, remember,” went on Barnabas, “neither you will say nothing nor I will say nothing o’ what has happened. I ha’ put you to shame before me an’ this gentleman here, an’ that is enough. But I tell you, an’ you give ’eed now, it would be better for you to desert than to go on a-servin’ where you are now. If I meets you again—if my Batt’ry lays with your Reg’ment, an’ Privite Shacklock is on the rolls, I will first mill you myself till you can’t see, and then I will say why I strook you. You must go, an’ look bloomin’ slippy about it, for if you stay, so sure as God made Paythans an’ we’ve got to wipe ’em out, you’ll be loosing off o’ unauthorised amminition—in or out o’ barricks, an’ you’ll be ’anged for it. I know your breed, an’ I know what these ’ere white marks mean. You’re mad, Shacklock, that’s all—and here you stay, under me. An’ now choop, an’ lie still.”
I waited and smoked, and Gimner Barnabas smoked till the shadows lengthened on the hillside, and a chilly wind began to blow. At dusk Gunner Barnabas rose and looked at his captive. “Drink’s out o’ ’im now,” he said.
“I can’t move,” whimpered Shacklock. “I’ve got the fever back again.”
“I’ll carry you,” said Gunner Barnabas, swinging hun up and preparing to climb the hill. “Good-night, sir,” he said to me. “It looks pretty, doesn’t it? But never you forget, an’ I won’t forget neither, that this ’ere shiverin’, shakin’, convalescent a-hangin’ on to my neck is a ragin’, tearin’ devil when ’e’s lushy—an’ ’e a boy!”
He strode up to the hill with his burden, but just before he disappeared he turned round and shouted: “It’s the likes o’ ’im brings shame on the likes o’ us. ’Tain’t we ourselves, s’elp me Gawd, ’tain’t!”