A Straight Flush (Rudyard Kipling, 1886)
There were two armies on the ground at that time and the betting ran high. You see they were pretty evenly matched. Mullithorpe had the decayed remnants of a very handsome man about him; and his ways and style and manner and turn-out generally were perfect. He had money and horsed himself well; and he was an enormous favourite among women. He used to take everything for granted in a high and mighty fashion, that went straight to their hearts. He was Army Number One.
Savern was a good fifteen years his junior. He hadn't many enemies, but the few he had called him a "red-headed boy." He wasn't a boy exactly, being five and twenty; but he was too young for his years. He was not bad looking, and his looks were fresh. Mullithorpe, at the best of times, seemed stale and too well kept. Besides that, Savern was as honest as the day, and meant everything he said, and never went out of his way to do another fellow a bad turn. He was poor, with about two hundred a year besides his pay. It sounds a great deal in rupees, but it isn't much to marry on. He was Army Number Two.
They were maneuvering round Miss Barcaldine—Ethel Barcaldine—and she was as sweet as Providence makes them. She had a Mamma and a Papa, and two horses, and a little shivering fox-terrier and new dreams three times a year from England, and what she said was law—signed, sealed, and irrevocable.
This was how the case stood at the beginning—in July. There were several men who said they would have walked up Tara Devi barefoot , on the off-chance of meeting Miss Barcaldine at the top. They weren't very serious though, for when Mullithorpe—with his big, slashing roan Waler, and his little red polo-pony, all withers and rump and jump, and his switch-tailed grey Arab that eat bread out of Miss Barcaldine's hand—took up the running, I noticed he somehow seemed to freeze 'em off. All of them except Savern.
Savern didn't talk about walking barefoot. But he held on and wore down his one galloway—an ugly, washy bay brute—running about Simla after Miss Barcaldine.
Mullithorpe tolerated him at first until it began to strike him that Savern meant business. He didn't tolerate him any more then, and whenever he could, he made himself nasty to Savern. But Savern wouldn't be hurt. His strong card was Mullithorpe's age, and what he went upon was the respect due from a junior to a senior. Consequently he called him "Sir" demonstratively. Now there is an age in the life of a man, when to be called 'Sir" by a junior makes him acutely unhappy, because he feels that he is ageing and that people notice it. Men hate growing old just as much as women. If not more.
Savern devoted the time he could spare from attending to Miss Barcaldine, to making Mullithorpe feel his years. "At your time of life, Sir—" he would begin, and then go on to point out the danger of dancing in draughty rooms and sitting up too late at night. Mullithorpe couldn't say much for it was advice respectfully tendered; but he did not love Savern and the more for it. So they maneuvered—did these two armies—round Miss barcaldine, with all of their sets looking on and betting on the winner as they fancied; and Ethel Barcaldine so demure and unconscious as though there was no such things as love and matrimony in the universal world.
That was a season—may be you will recollect it—more remarkable than other Simla seasons for its gambling. 'Twasn't Club play—that is always steady enough—but private play in private houses, with no one to help a man who didn't know what he was about. There are more stories connected with that season will bear repetition. The game was Poker for choice—you know how fashions go in games—and the stakes were cruelly high. There are men now who will go to their graves crippled from the debts of the season. But it was a beautiful time for men who knew how to play. They were not many, but they profited.
Mullithorpe could play. More than a little. Now Poker is not sitting down at a table to tell another man lies about the state of your hand, as some people suppose. Poker is a game of skill and science, and was originally invented by the Red Indians to teach their braves to keep still under strong emotion. Men said it was awe-inspiring to watch Mullithorpe at Poker—that the Sphinx was a nervous blushing school-girl compared to him as he sat with his eyes half shut, and the smoke of his cheroot on a blank shield, as still as if it was cut in stone. He was great at Poker. Many men found this out, and let him go else where for his partners.
When Savern's regiment was stationed at Halifax. Savern had learnt a little bit about the game, but not much. He played, too, that season, but his play lay in a different set, from Mullithorpe's and, taking one week with another, he played within his means. He and Mullithorpe only clashed about Miss Barcaldine. Therefore when Mullithorpe began making himself agreeable to Savern, that subaltern suspected there was something wrong. Red-headed men are by nature mistrustful. You may have noticed this. Mullithorpe and Savern had known Miss Barcaldine about five weeks; but as she was anything but gushing in her manner, neither had advanced very much in her graces. At least she showed no signs of taking any particular interest in them. Savern thought about Mullithorpe's amiability, and gave up thinking as bad for his health. Like Brer Rabbit, he "sponded" to Mullithorpe's "howdee," just to see what would come of it, and it was not long before Mullithorpe' showed his hand. He had heard great things of Savern's play and so on and so on—with the result that Savern dined with Mullithorpe at his hotel more than once, and wound up the evening with a little Poker. Some people say you can play the game between with two than four. Mullithorpe was of that opinion exactly. In his seal to see that Savern was safely hooked, he slacked off a little—perhaps two annas—in his attention to Miss Barcaldine. Savern did not; and events proved that this was put to his credit by the lady.
The two Armies went about now cheek-by-jowl, and their backers, seeing the game, said it was very queer. The two Armies also played Poker together; but they did not play level.
Then, two months after the maneuvering had begun, it struck Savern that he was losing rather more than he could afford Most men would dropped the game, but Savern didn't. He thought it out this way:—"If I cannot keep the rupees I value so highly, how much the more imperative is it that I should at least make certain of the girl I value more than all the rupees in the world." This may seem crooked logic, but it was sound policy. After he had finished his thinking, he went out, and meeting Miss Barcaldine rdiing on the Mall alone, he took it as an omen and proposed close to the Goorkha guard and the Bodyguard's lines, three and thirty minutes after his first resolution was taken. He was horribly nervous, but he stuck to his point and put the matter in the fewest words. Which is always well. The upshot of it all was that Miss Barcaldine accepted him under oath not to make the engagement public till the end of the season—because as she had said they had known each other so short a time. Savern went to his hotel with the everlasting Himalayas dancing polka-mazurkas round him, and spent half an hour trying to put away the traces of undue delight from his countenance. —
Then a note came to him from Mullithorpe asking him to make a big night of it at Poker, and scoop all his losings back. Because Savern had just been accepted nu the woman he loved was several times wiser than the serpent—as is the rule—and he began to see how things were drifting. As a rule Savern was good and virtuous but he thought in view of the trap that Mullithorpe had been setting for him that he might once in a way depart from his principles. He went able to to lose Ra. 5,000 and pay. If Mullithorpe insisted. But he had a notion that Mullithorpe would not insist.
They made a very big night of it. Savern played like a fiend, and lost like agel to whom gold is dross. Close upon the false dawn Mullithorpe dropped his mask and explained to Savern that altogether Savern owed him Ra. 4,790. Savern said he was stone-broke and waited for developments, while Mullithorpe went on, very kindly indeed: —"You are young and a fool. Let this be a lesson to you. I have no intention, &c., &c., of ruining you: &c., &c., &c." Mullithorpe almost made himself believe he was speaking for Savern's good—"and I ask only, as the price of what I hold in my hand"—that was a bundle of paper with Savern's handwriting at the bottom—"that you leave Simla tomorrow-this morning that is-without communicating to any one. Also that you stay down till I consider it expedient for you to return."
* * * * * * *
The papers were burnt. Savern saw to that, and said it was immensely generous of Mullithorpe. Then he rode off to pack up and nearly fell off his horse with laughing. He left at 6-30. He got to Umballa at five that afternoon. There was a telegram waiting for him. "From Mullithorpe, Simla, To Savern, Umballa Cantonment, Private, Ordinary:—Come up, I pass."
Saven came up next day. He said he had never enjoyed a journey so much in his life. As a general rule it is not wholesome to try to get the better of a subaltern of the Line if he has had more than five years' service.