He came to us from Naogong, somewhere in central India; and as soon as we saw him we all voted him a Beast. That was in the Mess of the 45th Bengal Cavalry, stationed at Pindi; and everything I'm going to write about happened this season. I've told you he was an awful Beast—old even for a subaltern; but then he'd joined the Army late, and had knocked about the world a good deal. We didn't know that at first. I wish we had. It would have saved the honour of the Mess. He was called ''Tick" in Naogong, because he was never out of debt; but that didn't make us think him a Beast.
Quite the other way, for most of us were pretty well dipped ourselves. No; what we hated about the fellow was his "dark horsiness." I can't express it any better than that; and, besides, it's an awful nuisance having to write at all. But all the other fellows in the Mess say I'm the only man who can handle a pen decently; and that I must, for their credit, tell the world exactly how it came about. Everyone is chaffing us so beastily now.
Well, I was saying that we didn't like Tick Boileau's "dark horsiness." I mean by that, you never knew what the fellow could do and what he could not; and he was always coming out, with that beastly conceited grin on his face, in a new line—'specially before women,—and making the other man, who had tried to do the same thing, feel awfully small and humble. That was his strong point-simpering and cutting a fellow out when he was doing his hardest at something or other. Same with billiards; same with riding ; same with the banjo: he could really make the banjo talk—better even than Banjo Browne at Kasauli you know; same with tennis. And to make everything more beastly, he used to pretend at first that he couldn't do anything. We found him out in the end; but we'd have found him out sooner if we'd listened to what old Harkness the Riding-Master said the day after Tick had been handed over to him to make into a decent "Hornet." That's what the bye-name of our regiment is. Harkness told me when I came into Riding School, and laughed at Tick clinging on to the neck of his old crock as if he had never seen a horse before.
Harkness was cursing—like a riding master. He said:"You mark my words, Mister Mactavish; he's been kidding me, and he'd kid you. He can ride. 'Wish some of you other gentlemen could ride as well. He is playing the dark horse—that's what he's doing, and be d—d to him!" Well, Tick was as innocent as a baby when he rolled off on to the tan. I noticed that he fell somehow as if he knew the hang of the trick; and Harkness passed him out of Riding School on the strength of that fall. He sat square enough on parade, and pretended to be awfully astonished. Well, we didn't think anything of that till he came out one night in the billiard line at Black Pool, and scooped the whole Mess. Then we began to mistrust him, but he swore it was all by a fluke. We used to chaff him fearfully; and draw him about four nights out of the seven. Once we drugged his chargers with opium overnight; and Tick found 'em asleep and snoring when he wanted to go on parade.
He was a trifle wrathy over this; and the Colonel didn't soothe him by giving him the rough edge of his tongue for allowing his horses to go to sleep at unauthorized hours. We didn't mean to do more than make the chargers a bit bobbery next morning; but something must have gone wrong with the opium. To give the Beast his due, he took everything very well indeed; and never minded how often we pulled his leg and made things lively for him. We never liked him, though. 'Can't like a man who always does everything with a little bit up his sleeve. It's not fair.
Well one day in July Tick took three months' leave and cleared out somewhere or other—to Cashmere I think. He didn't tell us where, and we weren't very keen on knowing.
We missed him at first, for there was no one to draw. Our regiment don't take kindly to that sort of thing. We are most of us hard as nails; and we respect each other's little weaknesses.
About October Tick turned up with a whole lot of heads and horns and skins—for it seemed that the beggar could shoot as well as he did most other things,—and the Mess began to sit up at the prospect of having some more fun out of him. But Tick was an altered man. 'Never saw anyone so changed. 'Hadn't an ounce of bukh or bounce left about him; never betted; knocked off what little liquor he used to take; got rid of his ponies, and went mooning about like an old ghost. Stranger still, he seemed to lay himself out in a quiet sort of way to be a popular man; and, in about three weeks' time we began to think we had misjudged him, and that he wasn't half such a bad fellow after all. The Colonel began the movement in his favour. 'Said that Tick was awfully cut up about something, and that we really ought to make his life more pleasant for him. He didn't say all that much at once. 'Don't believe he could if he tried for a week, but he made us understand it. And in a quiet sort of a way—Tick was very quiet in everything he did just then—he tumbled to the new bandobast more then ever, and we nearly all took to him. I say nearly all, because I was an exception. He had a little bit up his sleeve in this matter too.
You see he had given all his skins and heads to the Mess, and they were hung in trophies all round the wall. I was seeing them being put up, and I saw in one corner the Cabul Customs mark, in a sort of aniline ink stamp, that all the skins that come from Peshawar must have. Now I knew Cashmere wasn't Peshawar, and that bears didn't grow with Customs marks inside the hide. But I sat tight and said nothing. I want you to remember that I suspected Tick Boileau from the first. The fellows in the Mess say I was just as much taken in as the rest of 'em; but in our Mess they'd say anything. One of Tick's new peculiarities just at this time was a funk of being left alone. He never said anything about it. He used to be always coming over to fellows' quarters in the afternoon though, just when they were trying to put in a little snooze and he'd sit still or bukh about nothing. He was very queer altogether in that way; and some of us thought he'd had D.T.; others that he was engaged, and wanted to get out of it; and one youngster, just joined, vowed that Tick had committed a murder and was haunted by the ghost of his victim.
One night we were sitting round the table smoking after dinner, and this same youngster began bukhing about a Station dance of some kind that was coming off. 'Asked old Tick if he wasn't coming, and made some feeble joke about "ticks" and kala Juggas. Anyhow, it fetched Tick awfully.
He was lifting a glass of sherry up to his mouth, and his hand shook so that he spilt it all down the front of his mess-jacket. He seemed awfully white, but perhaps that was fancy; and said as if there was something in his throat choking him: ''Go to a ball. No! I'd sooner rot as I stand!" Well, it isn't usual for a fellow to cut up like that when he's asked if he's going to a hop. I was sitting next to him and said quietly : "Hullo! What's the matter, old man?"
Tick was by way of being no end of a dawg before he took leave, and that made his answer all the queerer. "Matter!'' said Tick, and he almost screamed. "You'd ask what was the matter if you'd seen what I have!"
Then he turned on the youngster. "What the this and the that do you mean, you young this and t'other thing "—[It's no good putting down the words he used. They weren't pretty.]—"By asking me a question like that?"
There would have been decanters flying about on the wings of love if we hadn't stopped the shindy at once; and when Tick came to himself again he began apologising all he knew, and calling himself all sorts of hard names for raising the row. And that astonished us more than anything else. Tick wasn't given that way as a rule. 'Said the Colonel from his side of the table: "What in the name of everything, lunatic, is the matter ? Have you gone mad, Boileau?"
Then Tick chucked up his head like a horse when it's going to bolt, and began to speak. Goodness knows what he said exactly; but he gave us to understand that, if he wasn't off his head, he was next thing to it; and that any man would have been the same in his place ; and, if we cared to listen, he'd tell us all about it. You bet we did care, for we were on needles to know the reason of the sudden change in the fellow. Tick half filled his pegtumbler with port—it was the nearest decanter,—and told us this story. I can put it down word for word as he said it, not because I've got a good memory, but because—well, I'll tell you later. This is what Tick said in a shaky, quivery voice, while we smoked and listened:—
"You know I took three months' leave the other day, don't you? And that I went into Kashmir? You mayn't know"—[We didn't]—"that I put in the first month of my time at Mussoorie. I kept very quiet while I was up there, for I had gone up on purpose to follow a girl that you men don't know. She came from Pachmarri; and she was the daughter of a doctor there. I used to know her very well when I was stationed out Naogong way, and from knowing her well I got to falling in love with her."
He pulled up half a minute at that, and glared all round the table to see how we took it. We aren't whales exactly on falling in love with unmarried girls in our Mess. The Colonel doesn't hold with it, and he's quite right. But none of us moved a finger, and Tick went on.
"She was absolutely the most perfect girl on the face of this earth; and I'd knock any beggar's brains out who denies it." [None of us wanted to, I give you my word.]—"Upon my soul, I meant marrying her if she would only ha' taken me. And she did. O Heaven, she did! She has accepted me!" Tick covered his face with his hands and went on like a lunatic. I fancied he d got a touch of the sun, or that the peg-tumbler of port was beginning to work. Then he started off on a fresh tack, while we were staring at one another and wondering what on earth was coming next.
"Do any of you fellows recollect the Club Ball at Mussoorie this year?" Curiously enough not one of us had been up of the Mess; but you may be certain that we knew all about the ball.—[By the way, take us all round and we're the best dancers in India; but that's neither here nor there.]—Someone said, "Yes;" and Tick went on again:—"It happened there! It happened there! I had arranged beforehand that she was to give me four or five dances and all the extras. She knew long before that, I think, that I loved her; and I as good as told her before the dance began that I intended proposing. It was the first extra - there were going to be three that evening—that I had arranged to sit out with her and tell her how I loved her. We had been dancing together a good deal that evening, until she began to complain of a pain in her side, and then we sat out in the verandah."
Tick shovelled his hand through his hair and rolled his eyes about, more like a maniac than ever, and we sat tight and filled up our glasses quietly without saying anything.
"At the end of the last pukka waltz she went into the cloak room, because her slipper-elastic had become slack—I heard her explain that to the man she was dancing with,—and I went out into the verandah to think over what I had got to say. When I turned round I saw her standing at my side; and before I had time to say anything she just slipped her arm through mine and was looking up in my face. 'Well, what is it that you're going to say to me?' said she. And then I spoke—though honestly I was a little bit startled at the way she herself led up to the point, as it were. Lord only knows what I said or what she said. I told her I loved her, and she told me she loved me. Look here! If a man among you laughs, by Jove, I'll brain him with the decanter!"
Tick's face was something awful to look at just then—a dead white, with blue dimples under the nostrils and the corners of the mouth. He looked like a corpse that had been freshly dug up—not too freshly, though. I never saw anything more beastly in my life—except once at the front. Then he brought his hand down on the table in a way that made the dessert plates jump, and almost howled:—"I tell you I proposed to her, and she accepted me. Do you hear? She accepted me!"
Well, that didn't strike us as anything particularly awful. I've been accepted once or twice myself; but it didn't turn me into more than an average lunatic for the time being.
Tick dropped his voice somewhere into his boots—at least it sounded awfully hollow and unearthly:—"Then as the extra stopped she got up to go away from the sofa we'd been sitting on, and I asked her to stay. She told me that she was going to her next partner. I said : 'Look here, darling, who is your next partner if it isn't me, for ever and ever? Sit down and let us wait till your chaperone is ready.' 'My chaperone is ready, dear,' said she; 'and I must go to her. But remember that you are my next partner for ever and ever. Amen. Good-bye.'
"Before I could say anything she had run out of the verandah and into the ball-room. I stopped to look at the moon and to thank my stars I was so lucky as to win her. Presently a man I knew hurried by me with a rug out of one of the dandies. My heart was so full I just pulled him up where he stood and said: 'Congratulate me, old boy! She's accepted me. I'm the happiest fellow on earth!' Now everyone in Mussoorie knew pretty well that I meant business with the girl; but instead of congratulating me the man just let the rug drop and said: 'O my God!'
"'What's the matter?' said I. 'Were you sweet on her yourself, then? All right, I'll forgive you. But you'll congratulate me, won't you?'
"He caught me by the arm, and led me quietly into the ball-room and then left me. Everybody was clustered in a mob round the cloak-room door; and some of the women folk were crying. A couple of 'em had fainted. There was a sort of subdued hum going out, and everyone was saying: 'How ghastly! How shocking! How terrible!' I leant up against a door-post and felt sick and faint, though I didn't know why. Then the fellow who had taken the dandy rug came out of the cloak-room and spoke to one of the women. Tick had nearly emptied the decanter by this time; and as I looked up and down the Mess I could see two or three of the men looking awfully white and uncomfortable. My hair began to feel cold, as if draughts were blowing through it. I don't mind owning to that. Tick went ahead: --
"The woman—she was an utter stranger—came up to speak to me, and she told me that my little girl had gone into the cloakroom at the end of the last dance before the extras came on, complaining of a pain in her side. She had sat down and died of heart disease as she sat! This was at the end of the last pukka waltz. Do you hear me? I tell you it was at the end of the last pukka waltz!"
[I don't know much about printing presses; but if you printer fellows have got any type big enough and awful enough to give any idea of the way in which Tick said that you are seven pounds better than I thought.]
I felt as if all the winds in the Hills were crawling round my hair. You know that cold, creepy feeling at the top of the scalp, just when the first dropping shots begin, and before the real shindy starts. Well, that was how I felt—how we all felt, in fact—when Tick had finished and brought down his hand again on the table. We shifted about as if our chairs were all red-hot, trying to think of something pleasant to say. Tick kept on repeating: ''It was at the end of the last pukka waltz!" Then he'd stop for a bit, and rock to and fro; and ask us what he was to do. Whether "a betrothal to a dead woman was binding in law," and so on—sometimes laughing and sometimes chucking his head about like my second charger when the curb-chain's tighter than it should be.
It may sound awfully funny to read now; but I assure you sitting round the Mess table with Tick's white and blue face in front of one and Tick's awful way of laughing and talking in one's ears, the fun did not dawn on us till a long time after. And even then we weren't grateful.
Our Colonel was the first to move. The old man got up and put his hand on Tick's shoulder, and begged him, for his own sake, not to take it to heart so much. Said that he was unwell, and had better go to his own quarters. Tick chucked up his head again and regularly yelled :—"I tell you I have seen it with my own eyes. I wish to Heaven it had been a delusion." All this time the Colonel was soothing him down, just as you or I would gentle a horse; and the other Johnnies stood round and mumbled something about being awfully sorry for his trouble, and that, if they'd known, they would have dropped pulling his leg like a shot. Whether it was too much liquor, or whether Tick really had seen a ghost, we didn't stop to think. He was so awfully cut up no one could have helped being sorry for him.
Well, I and another Johnnie went with him over to his quarters, and Tick chucked himself down on the charpoy and buried his face in the pillow; and his shoulders shook as if he were sobbing like a woman. The other Johnnie turned the lamp down, and we left him and went back to Mess. There we sat up the rest of the night pretty nearly, the lot of us; bukhing about ghosts and delusions, and so on. We were all pretty certain that Tick hadn't got the "jumps" or anything foolish of that kind, because he was as steady as a die in those things—'couldn't have played to win unless his head had been fairly cool you know. Finally we decided that there was no need to tell anyone outside the Mess about the night's business, and that we were all awfully sorry for Tick. I want to remind you that I was sitting tight all this time. I thought of the Customs' mark on the bear skins, and browsed quietly over a peg. About parade time we went to bed. Tick turned up awfully haggard and white on parade.
He took the noon down-train to Lahore that day and cleared out, he didn't tell us where to, on a few days' leave. We did not look at his quarters. Three of us went over to the Club that afternoon, and the first thing a man asked us: was "what we thought of it?" Then all the Johnnies in the smoking-room began to laugh, and then they began to roar. It seems that that blackguard Tick had been over to the Club directly after parade and told all the men there about his yarn over-night, and the way we'd sucked it in from the Colonel downwards. It was all over Pindi before nightfall; and you may guess how they chaffed us about "pukka waltzes" and men with 'dandy rugs, and whether a "betrothal to a dead woman was binding in law." Just you ask one of the 45th that question, and see what happens! When we three rode back to Mess I can tell you that we didn't feel proud of ourselves. There was a regular indignation meeting on, and everyone was talking at the top of his voice. Fellows who had just come in from polo, or from making calls, had all been told of it; and they wanted Tick's blood. The whole blessed business was a benow from beginning to end and we bad believed it. We moved over to Tick's quarters to begin by making hay there. Nothing except the chairs and charpoy (and those belonged to Government) had been left behind.
Over the mantelpiece a double sheet of note-paper had been pinned, and above this in letters about two-foot high, was written in charcoal on the wall:—"The Unlimited Draw of Tick Boileau.'' The Beast had carefully written out the whole yarn from beginning to end, with stage directions for himself about yelling and looking half mad in red ink at the sides. And he had left that behind for our benefit.
It was a magnificent ''sell"; but nothing except Tick's acting would have pulled it off in the perfect way it went. We stopped dead, and just pondered over the length and the breadth and the thickness of it. If we'd only thought for a minute about the improbability of a woman dying at a Mussoorie ball without the whole of upper India knowing it we might have saved ourselves. But that's just what we didn't do. And if you'd listened to Tick you'd have followed our lead.
Tick never came back. I fancy he had a sort of notion it wouldn't have been healthy for him if he had. But we've started a sort of Land League—what do you call it? Vehmgericht?—in our Mess; and if we come across him anywhere we're going to make things lively for him. He sent in his papers and went down to Pachmarri, where it seems he really was engaged to a girl with money— something like two thousand a year, I've heard,—married her, and went home. Of course he had spent his three months' leave at Pachmarri too. We found that out afterwards. I don't think I should have taken all that trouble and expense (for the Mess room is full of those horns and heads) to work out a sell like that, even if it had been as grand a one as "The Unlimited Draw of Tick Boileau." P.S.—Just you ask any one of us if "a betrothal to a dead woman is binding in law," and see what happens. I think you'll find that I've written the truth pretty much.