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Without Benefit of Clergy
by [?]

‘There be two,’ said Pir Khan, ‘two goats of the best. I bought them, and they cost much money; and since there is no birth-party assembled their flesh will be all mine. Strike craftily, sahib!’Tis an ill-balanced sabre at the best. Wait till they raise their heads from cropping the marigolds. ’

‘And why?’ said Holden, bewildered.

‘For the birth-sacrifice. What else? Otherwise the child being unguarded from fate may die. The Protector of the Poor knows the fitting words to be said. ’

Holden had learned them once with little thought that he would ever speak them in earnest. The touch of the cold sabre-hilt in his palm turned suddenly to the clinging grip of the child up-stairs—the child that was his own son—and a dread of loss filled him.

‘Strike!’ said Pir Khan. ‘Never life came into the world but life was paid for it. See, the goats have raised their heads. Now! With a drawing cut!’

Hardly knowing what he did, Holden cut twice as he muttered the Mahomedan prayer that runs: ‘Almighty! In place of this my son I offer life for life, blood for blood, head for head, bone for bone, hair for hair, skin for skin. ’ The waiting horse snorted and bounded in his pickets at the smell of the raw blood that spirted over Holden’s riding-boots.

‘Well smitten!’ said Pir Khan wiping the sabre. ‘A swordsman was lost in thee. Go with a light heart, Heaven-born. I am thy servant, and the servant of thy son. May the Presence live a thousand years and…the flesh of the goats is all mine?’ Pir Khan drew back richer by a month’s pay. Holden swung himself into the saddle and rode off through the low-hanging wood-smoke of the evening. He was full of riotous exultation, alternating with a vast vague tenderness directed towards no particular object, that made him choke as he bent over the neck of his uneasy horse. ‘I never felt like this in my life,’ he thought. ‘I’ll go to the club and pull myself together. ’

A game of pool was beginning, and the room was full of men. Holden entered, eager to get to the light and the company of his fellows, singing at the top of his voice—

In Baltimore a-walking, a lady I did meet!

‘Did you?’ said the club-secretary from his corner. ‘Did she happen to tell you that your boots were wringing wet? Great goodness, man, it’s blood!’

‘Bosh!’ said Holden, picking his cue from the rack. ‘May I cut in? It’s dew. I’ve been riding through high crops. My faith! my boots are in a mess though!

‘And if it be a girl she shall wear a wedding-ring,
And if it be a boy he shall fight for his king,
With his dirk, and his cap, and his little jacket blue,
He shall walk the quarter-deck—’

‘Yellow on blue—green next player,’ said the marker monotonously.

He shall walk the quarter-deck,—Am I green, marker? He shall walk the quarter-deck,—eh! that’s a bad shot,—As his daddy used to do!

‘I don’t see that you have anything to crow about,’ said a zealous junior civilian acidly. ‘The Government is not exactly pleased with your work when you relieved Sanders. ’

‘Does that mean a wigging from headquarters?’ said Holden with an abstracted smile. ‘I think I can stand it. ’

The talk beat up round the ever-fresh subject of each man’s work, and steadied Holden till it was time to go to his dark empty bungalow, where his butler received him as one who knew all his affairs. Holden remained awake for the greater part of the night, and his dreams were pleasant ones.