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TALBOT MUNDY

COMPANIONS IN ARMS

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First published in Adventure, Nov 1937

This e-book edition: Roy Glashan's Library, 2016
Version Date: 2021-06-27

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Adventure, November 1937, with "Companions in Arms"


IT was as a wave on the face of eternity that the Rajput Royal Horse went oversea, in 1914, to fulfill an immediate destiny, and to fire, in the shell-ploughed Flanders mud, its rifled requiem above the graves of its honored dead.

John Lawrence Burnham joined the regiment in Flanders, nineteen, green from an English public school and Woolwich, rushed through special courses for the war. He had been born in Rajputana. The first words he had ever learned to speak were Rajasthani. His father, who had commanded the regiment, was killed near Dargai, and the only son, aged seven, went to England with his mother, to be schooled and, if he pleased, to forget and to be forgotten. He remembered. He used Rajasthani in his dreams, that were all of turbaned, bearded horsemen, the smell of harness, and the thunder of lance-shod squadrons knee-to-knee.

So, since his name headed the examination list, it was his privilege to be gazetted to the regiment that his father had died leading. He arrived in Flanders when the German guns were devastating everything except the imponderable will to resist.

Burnham was a rather handsome youngster, with romantic eyes which only his mother knew were the masks of an iron will. He looked like merely one more victim for the guns and the gas and the smothering mud. They needed officers who might be safely strained beyond all human measure of manhood. So he was put under the merciless observation of a veteran Rajput Rissaldar-major, whose ironic eyes judged horse or man with equal candor, and who cared for nothing whatever on earth except the regiment's izzat.

Burnham made good. He had not dreamed his boyhood dreams for nothing. The Rissaldar-major's first confidential report of him was guarded, on a note of watchdog undergrowl:

"A boy of few words but a ready disposition, Colonel bahadur. The eyes of a dreamer. The heart, it may be, of a man."

"Very well, Rissaldar-major. Rub his nose in."

So the grim, ungracious business began, unmounted, in the teeth of the German drive. He had vigilant, sarcastic, courteously-worded insolence to take from one who was a subordinate in theory but in practise a merciless maker of men. Try how the Rissaldar-major might, and for the regiment's sake he did his utmost with humiliating irony and subtly unbalancing praise, he could find no unsoldierly flaws in young John Burnham. With the aid of a hundred abrasive oriental irritants, he stripped off the racial surface, and looked, and found a man beneath it.

There was a second report, less guarded, made by night while a German barrage, short by a couple hundred no-man's yards, exploded malice on the tortured mud:

"He is one of us, Colonel bahadur."

"Let the men know."

"Are they blockheads, Colonel sahib? They already know it. Of your honor's favor, may my son be transferred to his troop?"

"Oh. Is he as good as that? Very well."

The young sowar Kangra Gunga was the same age, almost to a day, as Burnham. They were born beneath the same sky, where the wandering Pilgreet River plunges from a mountain's flank, nearby the war-wrecked fortress walls of Gaglajung. As children they had been sung to sleep by the self-same lullabies, that are ballads of ancient Rajput chivalry. Kangra Gunga was a tall, upstanding youth whose dark eyes smouldered with the ancient pride.

"My one son, Burnham sahib. Demand of him double, that he may honor the regiment's name, and my loins also."

The Rissaldar-major loved the regiment as Cromwell his ironsides: "Ye dead men, who are not yet dead, die clean at the appointed time—aye, die as I will!" Kangra Gunga loved the regiment as a watchdog its home, ferociously obedient, sullen with strangers, uncommunicative. Burnham loved the regiment as a knight his mistress; nothing could be too good for her, no sacrifice sufficient. They were three iron men, allied by one and the same intolerance, and veiled by the same incomprehension of each other's viewpoint. No effort of Burnham's could thaw out Kangra Gunga's occult strangeness. He remained an enigma.

Vigilant, attentive, sullen, the young rajput watched Burnham with a curious gaze that might mean oriental jealousy. It might be the unexplainable hatred, such as men and animals sometimes generate toward each other. There were times when Burnham even harbored the disturbing thought that the rissalder-major might have set the young sowar to spy on him. It felt like being watched by destiny.

The problem could only be pondered beneath the surface of routine discipline, in moments snatched from the incalculable gales of sudden death, in the night watch, or in rat-infested dugouts. A cavalry regiment was teaching itself how to burrow and fight like beleagured rats. Burnham, in addition to that, was studying the men whom he must make himself fit to lead. He was feeling his way toward that middle line between familiarity and arbitrary wilfulness that is the secret of command. In the ranks of death an officer discovers that line soon, or never. Burnham found it.

But whether in the front line or at the base camp, he could find no key to the puzzle of Kangra Gunga's gaze—always the same, like the gaze of a caged and tameless panther. He gave it up, left the riddle to produce its own solution.

Then came the day when the Germans loosed their utmost hurricane of high explosive shells and hordes of men, to smash through to the Channel ports. Every available man was flung into the line; to plug gaps where the dead lay thicker than wheat in the blast of hail, and no man knew anything except that he still lived and must hold on.

It was spastic chaos, in a mystery of darkened days and shell-lit nights, where death slew at random. There was no survival of the fittest. They died who died. Flesh and blood, things and theories were buried in one havoc. Entire regiments ceased to exist.

But there remained the incredible, actual fact. The line held. Shattered, decimated, twisted, broken, there was an army still in being. Reserves of men awaited sunset to flow forward as the tide resumes dominion of a hurricane-swept beach.

Night. What was left of the regiment clung to a couple of hundred yards of shell-torn mud. It dug in. Nearly all the officers were dead or dying: it looked like the end of the Rajput Royal Horse. A wounded, semi-conscious orderly, drunk with pain, crawled forward through the flare-lit darkness, delivered his message and died.

"Hold on until relieved."

Burnham was the junior of three British officers left living. He and the rissaldar-major, on the right wing, hurled by a bursting shell into the same mud crater, crawled out and grinned in the shuddering glare of gun-fire. Kangra Gunga crawled to them and crouched, awaiting orders, that being his job.

There was a hurriedly thrown-up breastwork. There were more or less ninety men. There was a ruined dugout, and no cover for the wounded or the ammunition. But a hundred yards ahead there was a well-made trench that had been taken and retaken before the guns had made it No-Man's Land. It might be possible to seize that still unbroken refuge.

Burnham said what he thought, with his mind made up. He wasn't asking advice, but the veteran, from war-learned habit, gave, with the blunt authority of mentor to a pupil:

"Nay, nay, sahib. Keep touch. Better retire leftward, rearward, lose a little ground but—"

"Oh, if you're afraid, I'll hold your hand!"

Burnham shouted it to make himself heard. It did not occur to him that his words were a graceless insult, and that Kangra Gunga must have heard them. Peril and responsibility demanded every faculty he had. He was aware of nothing but shuddering, shell-lit night and instantly determined aim. He gave his orders. He and the rissaldar-major bent united effort to the task of getting ninety men, in darkness, into the new position. Kangra Gunga was an undistinguishable detail in the stealthy, well-disciplined rush, until the trench was gained.

As soon as he could spare time, Burnham worked his way along the trench, speaking to each man by name as he passed. He wanted to consult with the rissaldar-major. He found the veteran dying, the only casualty in that well-handled move that he had ventured almost insubordination to prevent. Burnham knelt beside him:

"I insulted you without meaning to," he said. "I'm sorry. I beg your pardon."

"Granted, sahib. Speech such as that at such a time means nothing. It is forgotten. Does my son live? Send him to me."

The message was passed from mouth to mouth along the trench, but the rissaldar-major was dead before Kanga Gunga could reach him. The young sowar knelt beside his father's body. He looked up at Burnham. A guttering candle-end, and then a Very light revealed his face and the expression in his eyes. Burnham turned his back.

It was the wrong thing to do. An hour or so later, when he had had time to think, he knew it was wrong. But what is said and done, is said and done. Unsaying and undoing are a new beginning, on a new page of the Book of Problems.

The remainder of that night was torment. It swept the past into oblivion as if it were a peopled city buried beneath volcanic lava, only to be tediously excavated, piece by piece in course of time. No one who survived that night was what he had been. New essentials emerged. Burned like scars on Burnham's memory were the unintended insult, the rissaldar-major's forgiveness, and the unforgiving enmity in Kangra Gunga's eyes.

Daybreak found the regiment still holding on, but its living were almost as lifeless as the dead. There was more life in Kangra Gunga's hatred than in Burnham's body. There was more sullen threat in the sowar's patient gaze than there was promise in the pale sun peering through the gray rain.

It was their last view of Flanders trenches when some fusiliers relieved them and they dragged their wounded and themselves through miles of mud toward the waiting lorries and the base. It was the last of France. The last of Europe. They were too few to survive as a separate unit. They were sent to Egypt and brigaded with other remnants as emergency forced hurried improvisation. They were lost in the trackless fury of a world-wide war. When peace came, the authorities struck the regiment's name from the rolls.

So the Rajput Royal Horse became one squadron of a mixed-race regiment, containing troops of almost every manly Indian breed that can become good cavalry. Accident, or someone's sentiment, or, if the Rajputs were right, their destiny, attended to it that the new composite frontier regiment, of which they were only one not readily distinguishable unit, should bear the old regiment's black, three-headed panther crest and the two-fold motto: "Always. No excuses."

So the rebirth was not without good portent. At the first full parade, when the remnants of other decimated regiments and new, vainglorious recruits rode line on line with them, and all were one, within one discipline, beneath the ancient symbol, the veteran sowars jested low-voiced in the ranks:

"Lo, it is born with a caul, this mongrel! Bid the bard sing the Lay of Alha! Pay the midwife double!"

But it was double trouble for the midwife. Major John Lawrence Burnham was the last left living and undisabled officer who had served the old izzat and earned the name Companion in Arms. It was upon him that the brunt of the new beginning fell.

The hundred thousand gods of Rajasthan must have had a hand in it, for the new commander was exactly the man to get the utmost out of Burnham, just as Burnham was the man to lick the regiment into shape. Burnham did it in spite of his Rajputs. Their scorn of less lineaged blood than their own, and of chivalry less absolute than theirs, undid a hundred times the substance of the stuff that Burnham spun and wove with all the patience of a poet and the calculating vigor of a blacksmith.

But the core of the heart of the regiment, nevertheless, was those Rajputs. They refused to yield one fragment of their claim to be the regiment itself. On them all other men must pattern their behavior or be damned. They explained nothing. They excused nothing. They told no secrets. They would descend to no man's level. Let the others reach theirs, if they had it in them.

So the sowars of several races in other squadrons, being soldierly and curious, used their imaginations. Burnham was a man about whom it was next to impossible not to invent such tales as Indians love to tell by firelight under the silent, star-hung sky. He was handsome. He rode like a centaur. He had medals, scars and the graceful modesty that maddens women and excites men to observant silence. Kangra Gunga was Burnham's shadow.

Of Kangra Gunga, too, it was easy to imagine tales. He was a gentleman in arms, of harp-sung lineage, who refused promotion. Why? Kangra Gunga kept his thoughts to himself. But he shadowed Burnham, never insubordinate, but always watchful. Guesswork grew into a legend as unshakable as regimental pride, that Burnham had insulted the hot-eyed Rajput under fire, in the presence of death. The merest raw recruit could draw the inference that Kangra Gunga must have sworn by his father's beard, and by his sword-hilt and by the hundred thousand gods of Rajasthan, to be avenged in an hour that destiny should grant.

It was perfectly understood why Kangra Gunga would await an hour of destiny. He was a Companion in Arms. His private feud was his, to be pursued to its end at his own discretion, subject to the regiment's first, overriding claim on his allegiance. He would die ten million deaths and face their consequences rather than betray the regiment's izzat. On that score there was nothing to argue about.

None knew, except Burnham and Kangra Gunga, what had been the nature of the insult. None even pretended to know. That Kangra Gunga never spoke of it was reckoned proof that it had cut to the heart of the Rajput consciousness that cherishes its wounds and keeps them unhealed for the day of vengeance.

An impeccable soldier, Kangra Gunga contrived, by the use of all the ingenuities that soldiers learn, to be detailed for every sort of special duty that enabled him to keep his eye on Burnham. With the quiet condescension of a born aristocrat he got on confidential terms with Burnham's body-servant. There was nothing that Burnham did, and almost nothing that Burnham said, that Kangra Gunga did not know. And Burnham knew that. But there was nothing he could do about it. He grew used to it.

Of course the story reached the colonel's ears in time. One evening he and Burnham, on shikar together, having slain their boars and dined, sat under a tent club awning and watched the rising moon. Along the foreground fifty yards away the moon and starlight cast the long shadow of Kangra Gunga, standing near the line of tethered ponies. Over beyond the horse line, where the servants' and the beaters' camp-fires glowed, someone was singing. Night and the Lay of Alha wrought their magic. There was intimacy in the air. The colonel, staring at Kangra Gunga, lighted a cigar and broke the long silence:

"That man. What about him?"

"Top hole with the ponies."

"Not bad. Horse sense runs in the blood of that breed from Gaglajung. You'd have had a close squeak this morning, if he hadn't been behind you with another spear when you broke yours. That boar nearly had you."

"Yes," said Burnham. "Kangra Gunga could have ditched me pretty badly. Damned if I know why he didn't. That was a tight place. No one could have blamed him if he'd been a second late."

"What's this queer story I hear about you and him? You'd better tell me."

So, for the first time, Burnham told the story of the rissaldar-major's death, and of how, in the heat of battle, he had spoken graceless insult overheard by Kangra Gunga.

"Have you ever mentioned it to him?"

"No. I should have spoken to him at the time. My fault that I didn't. Afterwards, it was too late."

"Any truth, do you think, in the gossip that he's biding his time for revenge?"

"I don't know. He's a thoroughbred. Steel guts. Cast-iron memory."

"We could get rid of him."

"If he were a badmash, yes," said Burnham. "But he's a good soldier. Besides, the men would see through it. It would rot morale. They'd say I funked him. Do less damage to get rid of me."

"Have it out with him. I don't want you killed in the night, or poisoned, or any stink of that sort."

"What's there to say to a man who thinks in terms of eternity?" Burnham answered. "He will stand to his code. He will never betray his own izzat by an act of treachery. To suggest that one believed he even contemplated that would be a measureless insult."

"Take him away alone and have it out with him," said the colonel. "Settle it once and for all, or I will do it for you."

But it was not so simple to have it out with Kangra Gunga as to wish to do it. There was not only the man's absolutely perfect manners, not only the racial gulf between East and West, and the barrier of reserve between rank and file. There was the fact that the regiment watched. Nothing might be said or done that could be misinterpreted by men whose discipline depended on the integrity with which their officers observed the finer points of regimental honor.

Burnham applied for short leave for a shooting trip. He took Kangra Gunga with him, in charge of camp equipment.

A visit to Gaglajung and a sight of his home, where tigers were reported to be taking too great toll of cattle, might release emotion. Where Burnham and Kangra Gunga had been born, beneath the same all-seeing stars, beside the same wild river, Kangra Gunga might find speech to relieve the strain of imprisoned hatred.

At last, when they stood alone together by the plunging Pilgreet River in the place where Burnham's mother's camp was pitched in the week that saw both men born, Burnham broke the long silence:

"We were playmates here. Remember? You pretended to be Arjuna. To this day there's a scar on my scalp where you clipped me with a blunted arrow." He removed his helmet. "Do you remember the lie we told your father, to account for the bit of a wound?"

Kangra Gunga's dark eyes watched the forefinger parting the crisp hair. Burnham continued speaking:

"Splendid man, your father. A grand soldier. Not a scrap of meanness in him, and no vindictiveness. With his dying breath he forgave me for a thoughtless insult."

"Yes?" said Kangra Gunga.

"There's the old scar. Can you see it?"

"Yes." He met Burnham's eye. He spoke slowly. "My father thrashed me for the carelessness with bow-and-arrow. But he thrashed me twice again for the lie."

"You may speak plainly," said Burnham. "There are no witnesses."

"What do you wish me to say?" asked Kangra Gunga.

"What is this resentment that you hold against me?"

"Nay, nay! Spoken words are not falcons that return to be hooded."

He saluted. Burnham nodded and he strode away to attend to the ponies.

Three days later, a wounded tigress charged from a thicket. Kangra Gunga shot her dead within a yard of Burnham's back. It was as plain as if his smile had said the grim words, that he would let no brute beast rob him of revenge.

That night Burnham summoned Kangra Gunga to the camp-fire. Seated by invitation, Kangra Gunga smiled when Burnham asked him point-blank:

"What is the issue between us? Let us speak of it, once and for all."

"I will listen to whatever your honor is pleased to say," Kangra Gunga answered.

"Why have you refused promotion? Why not follow in your father's footsteps?"

"Is it not sufficient that I bear in mind my father's izzat? Have I failed of a sowar's duty?"

"Look here, now. I admit that I insulted your father. It was unintentional, and I apologized at the first possible moment. He accepted my apology."

"He was already dead when I reached him," said Kangra Gunga.

"You have saved my life twice. Why?"

"Was it not my duty?"

"Very well. I have nothing against you, of course, if you do your duty. Good night."

Burnham had to tell the colonel of his failure.

"But I wish, sir, you could see your way to let it ride a bit longer. I think I'll solve it, sooner or later."

The colonel raised gray eyebrows. "Perhaps too late!"

"For the sake of his grand old father's memory I'd like to see this thing through to its end," said Burnham.

"You mean your end, don't you? Damned ass!" said the colonel.

"If the men should think I'd funked him, that might be the end of their respect for any of us."

"Have it your own way. But remember: slow revenge is slow fire. If he ever kills you in your sleep, don't return from the grave to haunt me for sympathy. You won't get it."

Thereafter, a rumor of war obscured all minor interests. There is endemic warfare in the mountains, where the lean Afridi pray to Allah for the coming of the great jihad, when they shall plunder India's plains.Hence, frontier regiments.

Beyond the frontier, the crops had failed. Complaining women and the yearning of their own bellies had made the young men pious. Hugging their smuggled rifles, stolen or bought for their weight in silver, they had been listening to the hot-mouthed mullahs preaching Paradise for death in battle.

Gathering lashkars had been viewed, by the Royal Air Force. They had been warned and, since they mocked at warnings, realistically bombed. The high explosives shattered a few sangars, scarred the mountains and raised roaring echoes along valley and ravine. The mocking hillmen had retorted by depositing at Peshawar Gate three severed heads that recently had graced the shoulders of the village elders of a clan that claimed British protection: one last insolence too many.

The regiment prayed to its squadrons of gods to send it first into the field.

Fretful weeks of waiting. Sudden climax. Marching orders. A delirium of joy. And then the easy, affluent outpouring as of well-trained hounds gone hunting.

A mere hill campaign. It barely made the front page, for a day, in a pause in the riot of world events. Success depended on swift and masterly attack, against ferocious marksmen, amid mountains where the droning air force rarely could discover ambush, and the cavalry bore the brunt of reconnaisance as in days gone by. Raw wind and iron rations. Plundered forage for the horses. Blind trails, mapless wilderness and midnight sniping. Staff work beyond praise but this side of perfection. Somebody blundered.

There was a retirement, due to a misread signal, amid echoing gorges, where the hillmen had prepared an ambush unseen from the air. Seven officers down. The rules of warfare downwind with the yells of the ambushed hillmen.

Burnham and twenty men, of whom one was his orderly, Kangra Gunga, were surrounded, waterless, within the wall of an abandoned sangar, unseen from the air because a gray cliff leaned between them and the sky.

There was only one thing to be done. Burnham sent Kangra Gunga galloping to ask for aid or orders, water and ammunition. He saw him ride through a hail of flanking rifle-fire and pitch head foremost from his shot horse.

"Dead!" said a sowar, staring between piled rocks. "Who next?"

There were nineteen pairs of eyes that glanced at Burnham. Nineteen silent witnesses that destiny had solved a riddle, looking to see how he liked it.

Burnham climbed a rock for a more commanding view. He saw a way of escape. Like many another one-man's fortress in the mountains, this one had a cunningly contrived back entrance. Well hidden by tumbled rocks, along the flank of the overleaning cliff, there was a path that offered precarious foothold for a led horse. One by one the men might steal away, unseen by the enemy. They might perhaps reach safety. It was worth trying. Burnham gave his orders and the escape commenced, one man at a time, at well-timed intervals.

The remainder defended the naked slope by which the enemy must climb. They kept up a hot fire through the gaps: in the broken wall; and as they vanished one by one, the others fired the faster, dodging from rock to rock to deceive the hillmen; until only Burnham and two sowars held the sangar—and then Burnham and one. He bade the last man go. The man demurred.Burnham spoke sharply: "Obey!"

Two minutes passed. Burnham used a wounded sowar's rifle, dodging from rock to rock, pretending to be ten men. At last he drove his horse along ahead of him, because he needed to be free to use the rifle if the hillmen should rush.

Too late. A number of hillmen had climbed for a deadlier angle of fire. Almost a machine-gun gale of bullets screamed from a ledge three hundred yards away and killed the horse. That hitherto unoccupied crag commanded the first fifty yards of the stairway trail by which the men had escaped. To attempt it now was certain death. But even from that high vantage point, the enemy could not command the space within the sangar wall. They could not see it was deserted. For the moment, Burnham was safe where he was.

Darkness at the latest would bring the hillmen swarming up the slope to use their steel. So Burnham, taking cover with a rifle on his knees, sat down to wait for darkness—and the end. It might be worse. Hundreds of men of action have had to retire and rot to death, on half pay, in an English suburb. He had got his men safely away, that was the important point. He sat wondering which of the junior officers was alive and would take his place.

He was startled when Kangra Gunga, toward evening, crawled from between two boulders, stood, saluted and came forward, offering his water bottle. Burnham wet parched lips.

"Did you get through with your message?" he demanded.

"Yes. My horse was shot. I crawled until I found a sowar scouting forward, and to him I gave the message."

"Very well," said Burnham. "You weren't told to come back here. Couldn't you have escaped?"

"Yes."

Their eyes met in the deepening shadow. A full minute passed in silence, broken by the cat-call laughter of the hillmen, before Burnham spoke:

"We'll be dead in a minute or two, you and I. Care to shake hands?"

"Is it a command?" asked Kangra Gunga. He stood rigid at attention, his eyes glowing.

"No," said Burnham.

There began to be heavier firing, down below in the ravine where the impatient hillmen awaited darkness.

"Stand to," said Burnham. "This looks like the end."

"If you are afraid, I will hold your hand," said Kangra Gunga.

Neither man spoke after that for several minutes. They kept up a steady rifle-fire at hillmen who were dodging up the slope from rock to rock. Below them, the ravine was thunderous. Rifle-firing echoed and reechoed amid crags that deflected the din. It was impossible to see or guess what was happening, except that for the moment the assault, up the narrow approach to the sangar, had ceased.

Burnham and Kangra Gunga faced each other again, and Burnham smiled, a little wearily.

"Have you been waiting all these years for your chance to say that?" he said slowly.

"In the presence of death I have said it," Kangra Gunga answered.

Burnham stared at him. "This is not the first time we have looked at death together."

"Let it be the last time, sahib! It is possible to crawl to safety by the way I crawled in. I will hold this sangar while you do it. None will ever know you ordered it, unless you tell it."

"I understand you," said Burnham. "You don't believe that your father accepted my apology?"

Kangra Gunga's eyes had changed.

They were the eyes of a man who believed he had made a mistake, but who would take the consequences standing.

"You," said Burnham, "how dare you even think I'd lie to a companion in arms? Take this rifle and go, by the way you came. You hear me? Obey!"

Sudden and terrific squalls of rifle-fire resumed in the ravine. Then a trumpet call, equally sudden, and no mistaking it.

"Open order—advance!"

"That's the regiment," said Burnham.

"Find them. Tell them where I am."

Kangra Gunga saluted. "May I speak?"

"Yes.''

"Look! They are coming at us again! The hillmen mean to finish us before the regiment prevents. Sahib—

"Obey my order."

"Nay, I disobey it! I will die here. Major Burnham sahib, I had no sooner spoken than I knew it was wrong. But I spoke. I can not recall it. And you answered as a good companion in arms—aye, even as my father might have answered. I am ashamed. I will die here."

"As you were," said Burnham. "You may stay here.Quick now, use your rifle."

For several minutes they lay side by side, firing steadily into the shadows. It was clear now that the hillmen were in full retreat, fighting a rear-guard action. A dozen of them were making one last desperate attempt to storm the sangar. The assault checked, hesitated, dwindled, ceased. Below, the squalls of rifle-fire advanced up the ravine like a hailstorm driven by a high wind. Burnham leaned his rifle against a rock, and again he and Kangra Gunga faced each other. At last Burnham spoke:

"Anything else on your mind?"

"No, sahib." I have said what I said. I am ashamed."

"So I was, once," said Burnham. "As your father said to me, it is forgotten. Now would you care to shake hands?"


THE END


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