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A Scrap of Paper—Not Reprinted (Rudyard Kipling)
Short Story by Rudyard Kipling (Plain Tales from the Hills, 1886-7)
Some men ought to be hanged—especially London Tradersmen. They never seem to understand when to leave you alone; and they never realize that, in this country, you have quite enough expense of your own, without attending to their claims.
Every one who has dealt with them knows what an unpleasant firm Rentool and Brannigan are. They have no sense of common decency, and if you lie on their books for more than eighteen months at a stretch, they send you first a letter on thin white paper, then another letter on thick blue paper; and lastly send a writ. Writs are unpleasant things; even in so quiet a part of the world as Assam. They begin with lions and unicorns, like the first stage of delirium tremens, and then go on to "all whom it may concern"; and finish up with "wherefore" and "therebys." The general effect is depressing—distinctly so. But, as I may have said elsewhere, it takes a good deal to depress a Subaltern of the Line, and when Chubbuck got first the white paper, and next the blue, like a seidleitz powder, he knew what was in store for him and told the rest of the "Inextinguishables" that a writ was in the air. There's a deal of brotherly love in a Mess. The "Inextinguishables" took their writ under their wing, so to speak, and made a personal matter of it, and offered to dig rifle-pits for Chubbuck to hide in when the writter appeared. They were unanimous on the indecency of Rentoul and Brannigan's conduct, and their language was powerful, and to the point. Chubbuck said he would never give Rentoul and Brannigan his patronage any more—not though he lived to retire on his off-reckonings as a Commander-in-Chief. The rest of the "Inextinguishables" agreed with Chubbuck. Then they went about on horse and foot, and whenever one of them had nothing to do, he raised a false alarm that the writter was coming—just to keep Chubbuck in training, and prevent him brooding over his woes. Chubbuck didn't brood much; but they fancied he might. Goodness knows what value a Queen's writ has in this country! I fancy it merely serves to amuse the tradesmen at Home.
In the same cantonment as the "Inextinguishables" was quartered a native regiment, and the cantonment being a happy family, the news of Chubbuck's little misfortune spread naturally into the Mess too; and they were all very sorry and a good deal amused. The Junior Subaltern of the native regiment offered to do sword exercise on the person of the writter, or lend his regiment to walk over him once or twice; but, as events proved, he was of much greater use than if he had done all these things.
One day Chubbuck and the Junior Subaltern were riding together and talking horse, when a dogcart appeared on the horizon. Anybody with a little experience would recognize a writter a quarter of a mile off, even though the writter were disguised as a Lord Mayor with his corporation on. This particular writter was a public man, though not known by right to most of the subalterns. The dogcart pulled up, and Chubbuck shifted his reins ready to wheel round and bolt, when the writter said to the Junior Subaltern:—"Would you be good enough, Sir, to tell me where Lieutenant Chubbuck lives?" "Certainly," said the Junior Subaltern "his house is over there" pointing to the nearest barrack; "but at the present moment he is down in the Commisariat lines." Now the Commisariat lines were only four and a half miles away, and to get at them you had to—but that comes afterwards. The writter whipped up his horse, and thanked the Junior Subaltern and pounded away over the dessert.
The Junior Subaltern turned in his saddle. "I was made for a great general," said he. "Presently our friend will get into the elephant lines, and he will be unhappy. The Soldiers Pocketbook says that an enemy should be harassed whenever possible." "Come to the Mess and let us drink" said Chubbuck. So they went, and the Mess being full all the time, the Junior Subaltern was made much of by the "Inextinguishables," and the mellow "MacDonald" went round as they drank prosperity to the Junior Subaltern.
When a horse, however old he may be, gets among elephants—many of them—he does not feel happy. The writter sung round the corner of the Commisariat lines, and found himself, so to speak, in the bosom of the family of the Transport elephants as they rocked to and fro in their stalls. There were six on one side of the road, and six on the other, and it being near feeding time they trumpeted. The old horse stood on one leg, and tried to stand on his head and beat holes in the splashboard and settled down to a fifteen-anna gallop over Assam generally. At the end of a few miles he was pulled up, and the writter, very hot and angry, turned towards the "Inextinguishable" Mess to lay hold of the man who had misled him. He argued that he must have been Lieutenant Chubbuck. So he drove into the Mess compond, and an intelligent "Inextinguishable" Subaltern lifted his voice and said to the Junior Subaltern, "Chubbuck have a drink." As the Junior Subaltern turned, the writter jumped out of the dog-cart and went for the Junior Subaltern. "Lieutenant Chubbuck I believe."—The Junior Subaltern smiled in a saintly and polite sort of way, but said nothing.—"I serve this writ on you," and he tapped the Junior Subaltern on the shoulder. "I'm awfully obliged," said the Junior Subaltern. "It's very pretty; but what am I to do with it! You see I'm not Chubbuck, and I'm in a Native Regiment, and I have no truck with Rentoul and Brannigan, so it's of no use to me. But I'll keep it as a memento of your visit all the same." Then the writter wanted the writ back, but the Junior Subaltern said he valued it as a work of art and a touching proof of confidence; and all the "Inextinguishables" came up to point out to the writter that these accidents would happen now and then, and he had better get a new writ from England. Now the writter was the best in Assam as all who have had dealings with him knew, and he had no wish to make things generally unpleasant. So he went away, and the "Inextinguishables" said that the Junior Subaltern deserved a statue in the middle of the parade=ground. Chubbuck and the little mistake gave him three months' law, and in that time he could settle Rentoul and Brannigan, and give them his mind in a letter.
That is the first part of the story. The second shows the ingratitude of men, where [illegible ..........] most awful penalties by "personating" Chubbuck and misdirecting the writter. The more he vowed he never personated, the more they quoted the Penal Code—with alterations—and they proved satisfactorily that about three years' hard labour was the most he could expect. The Junior Subaltern didn't know much about law, and he felt a little uneasy. The "Inextinguishables" lay low; and only hinted that he had better take six months' leave to do his sentence of imprisonment, and meantime they would look after his polo ponies In the course of that week men discovered that the Junior Subaltern's view on the subject of law were much the same as an infant's idea of a policeman. That gave the opening they wanted. The two men caused to be prepared on Government of India paper a lawyer's letter. It was long but comprehensive. It showed that the Junior Subaltern came under three or four sections of the Penal Code, for deluding that writter, and it threw in a few other charges of "intimidation by means of elephants" and putting in extreme and bodily fear. Reading it over with no knowledge of the law, it was perfect; and being touched in with red ink, and written in a clerk's hand, and signed in a crabbed hand and crammed full of "whereases" and "to wits," its mere appearance was striking. There was a dinner that night, it doesn't much matter where, and seven-and-twenty men sat down to it, including the Junior Subaltern. About coffee-and-cigar-time a servant brought in the huge envelope with the letter, and the Junior Subaltern turned green. He read three lines and said something impressive; and the balance of the table gave their undivided attention to the letter. Then some one read it aloud, and the Junior Subaltern groaned. Then everyone offered advice, and the uproar was fine. There were two men of the "inextinguishables" dining, and the swore, if the worst came to the worst, to help the Junior Subaltern thick and thin. And the man who was reading the letter went on shooting out the "wherefores" and "to wits" like an owl. Then men said:—"Fetch the Penal Code," and bad luck prompted an Assistant commissioner to get his copy, and the book fell into the hands of a ringleader, and he read the sections—with alterations—quickly, and shut the book up with a bang, and said the case was solved. Now remember, only the Junior Subaltern knows how much the Junior Subaltern felt; but ordinary men declared he was filled with one of the best and most solid panics that ever grew in the heart of men. The advice and comfort from the "Inextinguishables" only made things worse; and the Assistant Commissioner sailed into the trouble with the cheerful remark that, "if the facts were as stated, the Junior Subaltern was lost." It was an impressibe scene. In the centre stood the Junior Subaltern, pale but calm, holding the letter in the tips of his fingers; on the left was the Assistant commissioner anxious to help and believing in the genuineness of the letter; on the right was a man of the "Inextinguishables" swearing he would commit perjury for the sake of the Junior Subaltern; behind was another man of the same regiment advocating a sea-trip down the coast; and all round were twenty men going out into verandahs to lie down and roll with laughter, and coming back to suggest various ways of squaring the writter. Some men offered to go out and beat him with clubs. Others said he should have been dropped down a well in the first instance. But all agreed that the Junior Subaltern was done for. They would never forget the way he saved Chubbuck and the thought of this might cheer him grinding corn in Gowhatti gaol: whither he would soon go. Little be little the men settled into their parts, and the last agony of the Junior Subaltern was worse than the first. They kept the right side of absurdity and—well, it was meant for a long and elaborate draw, but the visible misery of the Junior Subaltern was too touching, and the men of the "Inextinguishables" said he could not be allowed sleep with the prospect of a felon's cell hanging over him.
He was told tenderly of the fraud and blessed relief at first blunted a natural indignation against the men who had prepared the letter. Then some one suggested that the fact of the Assistant Commissioner going so readily for the Penal Code was suspicious. That was quite enough. The Junior Subaltern started off for the Assistant Commissioner, and the rest of the gathering laughed themselves speechless on different parts of the floor. It took some time for the Assistant Commissioner to explain he was innocent as the babe unborn, and he leapt several fences and a ditch or two before the junior Subaltern understood he was shikarring the wrong man. After a bit the beauty of the "draw" began to strike the Junior Subaltern, and he settled down to explaining how he had never really cared at all. Everybody—even the Assistant Commissioner—said he had taken things beautifully, which was strictly true; and so he was formally christened "The Felon" before the evening broke up.
If this should meet the eye of the writter, he will understand that the Junior Subaltern has tasted all the bitterness of arrest, trial and imprisonment in the terrible two and a half hours that his friends prepared for him.
If this should meet the eye of Messrs. Rentoul and Brannigan, they will understand, as Chubbuck says, that "we owe more to them than we shall ever be able to repay."