Gunner Barnabas was a lean, heavy-browed, hollow-eyed giant, with a moustache of the same hue and texture as his mule’s tail. Much had he seen from Karachi to Bhamo, and, so his bosom friend, McGair, assured me, had once killed a man ‘with ’e’s naked fistes.’ But it was hard to make him talk. When he was moved to speech, he roved impartially from one dialect to another, being a Devonshire man, brought up in the slums of Fratton, nearly absorbed into Portsmouth Dockyard, sent to Ireland as a blacksmith’s assistant, educated imperfectly in London, and there enlisted into what he profanely called a ‘jim-jam batt’ry.’ ‘They want big ’uns for the work we does,’ quoth Gunner Barnabas, bringing down a huge hairy hand on his mule’s withers. ‘Big ’uns an’ steady ’uns. He flung the bridle over the mule’s head, hitched the beast to a tree, and settled himself on a boulder ere lighting an unspeakably rank bazar-cheroot.
The current of conversation flowed for a while over the pebbles of triviality. Then, in answer to a remark of mine, Gunner Barnabas heaved his huge shoulders clear of the rock and rolled out his mind between puffs. We had touched tenderly and reverently on the great question of temperance in the Army. Gunner Barnabas pointed across the valley to the Commander-in-Chief’s house and spoke: ‘’Im as lives over yonder is goin’ the right way to work,’ said he. ‘You can make a man march by reg’lation, make a man fire by reg’lation, make a man load up a bloomin’ mule by reg’lation. You can’t make him a Blue Light by reg’lation, and that’s the only thing as ’ill make the Blue Lights stop grousin’ and stiffen’.’ It should be explained for the benefit of the uninitiated, that a ‘Blue Light’ is a Good Templar, that ‘grousing’ is sulking, and ‘stiffing’ is using unparliamentary language. ‘An’ Blue Lights, specially when the orf’cer commanding is a Blue Light too, is a won’erful fool. You never be a Blue Light, Sir, not so long as you live.’ I promised faithfully that the Blue Lights should burn without me to all Eternity, and demanded of Gunner Barnabas the reasons for his dislike.
My friend formulated his indictment slowly and judicially. ‘Sometimes a Blue Light’s a blue shirker; very often ’e’s a noosance; and more than often ’e’s a lawyer, with more chin than ’e or ’is friends wants to ’ear. When a man—any man—sez to me “you’re damned, and there ain’t no trustin’ you,”—meanin’ not as you or I sittin’ ’ere might say “you be damned” comfortable an’ by way o’ makin’ talk like, but official damned—why, naturally, I ain’t pleased. Now when a Blue Light ain’t sayin’ that ’e’s throwin’ out a forty-seven-inch chest hinside of ’isself as it was, an’ letting you see ’e thinks it. I hate a Blue Light. But there’s some is good, better than ord’nary, and them I has nothing to say against. What I sez is, too much bloomin’ ’oliness ain’t proper, nor fit for man or beast.’ He threw himself back on the ground and drove his boot-heels into the mould. Evidently, Gunner Barnabas had suffered from the ‘Blue Lights’ at some portion of his career. I suggested mildly that the Order to which he objected was doing good work, and quoted statistics to prove this, but the great Gunner remained unconvinced. ‘Look ’ere,’ said he, ‘if you knows anything o’ the likes o’ us, you knows that the Blue Lights sez when a man drinks he drinks for the purpose of meanin’ to be bloomin’ drunk, and there ain’t no safety ’cept in not drinking at all. Now that ain’t all true. There’s men as can drink their whack and be no worse for it. Them’s grown men, for the boys drink for honour and glory—Lord ’elp ’em—an’ they should be dealt with diff’rent.
‘But the Blue Light ’e sez to us: “You drink mod’rate? You ain’t got it in you, an’ you don’t come into our nice rooms no more. You go to the Canteen an’ hog your liquor there.” Now I put to you, Sir, as a friend, are that the sort of manners to projuce good feelin’ in a rig’ment or anywhere else? And when ’Im that lives over yonder’—out went the black-bristled hand once more towards Snowdon—‘sez in a—in a—pamphlick which it is likely you ’ave seen’—Barnabas was talking down to my civilian intellect—‘sez “come on and be mod’rate them as can, an’ I’ll see that your Orf’cer Commandin’ ’elps you;” up gets the Blue Lights and sez: “’Strewth! the Commander-in-Chief is aidin’ an’ abettin’ the Devil an’ all ’is Angels. You can’t be mod’rate,” sez the Blue Lights, an’ that’s what makes ’em feel ’oly. Garrn! It’s settin’ ’emselves up for bein’ better men than them as commands ’em, an’ puttin’ difficulties all round’ an’ about. That’s a bloomin’ Blue Light all over, that is. What I sez is give the mod’rate lay a chance. I s’pose there’s room even for Blue Lights an’ men without aprins in this ’ere big Army. Let the Blue Lights take off their aprins an’ ’elp the mod’rate men if they ain’t too proud. I ain’t above goin’ out on pass with a Blue Light if ’e sez I’m a man, an’ not an — untrustable Devil always a-hankerin’ after lush. But contrariwise’—Gunner Barnabas stopped.
‘Contrariwise how?’ said I.
‘If I was ’Im as lives over yonder, an’ you was me, an’ you wouldn’t take the mod’rate lay, an’ was a-comin’ on the books and otherwise amisconductin’ of yourself, I would say: “Gunner Barnabas,” I would say, an’ by that I would be understood to be addressin’ everybody with a uniform, “you are a incorrigable in-tox-i-cator”’—Barnabas sat up, folded his arms, and assumed an air of ultra judicial ferocity—‘“reported to me as such by your Orf’cer Commandin’. Very good, Gunner Barnabas,” I would say. “I cannot, knowin’ what I do o’ the likes of you, subjergate your indecent cravin’ for lush; but I will edgercate you to hold your liquor without offence to them as is your friends an’ companions, an’ without danger to the Army if so be you’re on sentry-go. I will make your life, Gunner Barnabas, such that you will pray on your two bended knees for to be shut of it. You shall be flogged between the guns if you disgrace a Batt’ry, or in hollow square o’ the rig’ment if you belong to the Fut, or from stables to barricks and back again if you are Cav’lry. I’ll clink you till you forget what the sun looks like, an’ I’ll pack-drill you till your kit grows into your shoulder-blades like toadstools on a stump. I’ll learn you to be sober when the Widow requires of your services, an’ if I don’t learn you I’ll kill you. Understan’ that, Gunner Barnabas; for tenderness is wasted on the likes o’ you. You shall learn for to control yourself for fear o’ your dirty life; an’ so long as that fear is over you, Gunner Barnabas, you’ll be a man worth the shootin’.”’
Gunner Barnabas stopped abruptly and broke into a laugh. ‘I’m as bad as the Blue Lights, only t’other way on. But ’tis a fact that, in spite o’ any amount o’ mod’ration and pamphlicks we’ve got a scatterin’ o’ young imps an’ old devils wot you can’t touch excep’ through the hide o’ them, and by cuttin’ deep at that. Some o’ the young ones wants but one leatherin’ to keep the fear o’ drink before their eyes for years an’ years; some o’ the old ones wants leatherin’ now and again, for the want of drink is in their marrer. You talk, an’ you talk, an’ you talk o’ what a fine fellow the Privit Sodger is—an so ’e is many of him; but there’s one med’cin’ or one sickness that you’ve guv up too soon. Preach an’ Blue Light an’ medal and teach us, but, for some of us, keep the whipcord handy.’
Barnabas had rather startled me by the vehemence of his words. He must have seen this, for he said with a twinkle in his eye: ‘I should have made a first-class Blue Light—rammin’ double-charges home in this way. Well, I know I’m speakin’ truth, and the Blue Light thinks he is, I s’pose; an’ it’s too big a business for you an’ me to settle in. one afternoon.’
The sound of horses’ feet came from the path above our heads. Barnabas sprang up.
‘Orf’cer an’ ’rf’cer’s lady,’ said he, relapsing into his usual speech. ‘’Won’t do for you to be seen a-talkin’ with the likes o’ me. Hutup kurcha!’
And with a stumble, a crash, and a jingle of harness Gunner Barnabas went his way.