They had good reason to be proud, and better reason to be afraid, all twelve of them; for though they had fought their way, game by game, up the teams entered for the polo tournament, they were meeting the Archangels that afternoon in the final match; and the Archangels men were playing with half a dozen ponies apiece. As the game was divided into six quarters of eight minutes each, that meant a fresh pony after every halt. The Skidars’ team, even supposing there were no accidents, could only supply one pony for every other change; and two to one is heavy odds. Again, as Shiraz, the grey Syrian, pointed out, they were meeting the pink and pick of the polo-ponies of Upper India, ponies that had cost from a thousand rupees each, while they themselves were a cheap lot gathered, often from country-carts, by their masters, who belonged to a poor but honest native infantry regiment.
“Money means pace and weight,” said Shiraz, rubbing his black-silk nose dolefully along his neat-fitting boot, “and by the maxims of the game as I know it—”
“Ah, but we aren’t playing the maxims,” said The Maltese Cat. “We’re playing the game; and we’ve the great advantage of knowing the game. Just think a stride, Shiraz! We’ve pulled up from bottom to second place in two weeks against all those fellows on the ground here. That’s because we play with our heads as well as our feet.”
“It makes me feel undersized and unhappy all the same,” said Kittiwynk, a mouse-coloured mare with a red brow-band and the cleanest pair of legs that ever an aged pony owned. “They’ve twice our style, these others.”
Kittiwynk looked at the gathering and sighed. The hard, dusty polo-ground was lined with thousands of soldiers, black and white, not counting hundreds and hundreds of carriages and drags and dogcarts, and ladies with brilliant-coloured parasols, and officers in uniform and out of it, and crowds of natives behind them; and orderlies on camels, who had halted to watch the game, instead of carrying letters up and down the station; and native horse-dealers running about on thin-eared Biluchi mares, looking for a chance to sell a few first-class polo-ponies. Then there were the ponies of thirty teams that had entered for the Upper India Free-for-All Cup—nearly every pony of worth and dignity, from Mhow to Peshawar, from Allahabad to Multan; prize ponies, Arabs, Syrian, Barb, country-bred, Deccanee, Waziri, and Kabul ponies of every colour and shape and temper that you could imagine. Some of them were in mat-roofed stables, close to the polo-ground, but most were under saddle, while their masters, who had been defeated in the earlier games, trotted in and out and told the world exactly how the game should be played.
It was a glorious sight, and the come and go of the little, quick hooves, and the incessant salutations of ponies that had met before on other polo-grounds or race-courses were enough to drive a four-footed thing wild.
But the Skidars’ team were careful not to know their neighbours, though half the ponies on the ground were anxious to scrape acquaintance with the little fellows that had come from the North, and, so far, had swept the board.
“Let’s see,” said a soft gold-coloured Arab, who had been playing very badly the day before, to The Maltese Cat; “didn’t we meet in Abdul Rahman’s stable in Bombay, four seasons ago? I won the Paikpattan Cup next season, you may remember?”
“Not me,” said The Maltese Cat, politely. “I was at Malta then, pulling a vegetable-cart. I don’t race. I play the game.”
“Oh!” said the Arab, cocking his tail and swaggering off.
“Keep yourselves to yourselves,” said The Maltese Cat to his companions. “We don’t want to rub noses with all those goose-rumped half-breeds of Upper India. When we’ve won this Cup they’ll give their shoes to know us.”
“We sha’n’t win the Cup,” said Shiraz. “How do you feel?”
“Stale as last night’s feed when a muskrat has run over it,” said Polaris, a rather heavy-shouldered grey; and the rest of the team agreed with him.
“The sooner you forget that the better,” said The Maltese Cat, cheerfully. “They’ve finished tiffin in the big tent. We shall be wanted now. If your saddles are not comfy, kick. If your bits aren’t easy, rear, and let the saises know whether your boots are tight.”
Each pony had his sais, his groom, who lived and ate and slept with the animal, and had betted a good deal more than he could afford on the result of the game. There was no chance of anything going wrong, but to make sure, each sais was shampooing the legs of his pony to the last minute. Behind the saises sat as many of the Skidars’ regiment as had leave to attend the match—about half the native officers, and a hundred or two dark, black-bearded men with the regimental pipers nervously fingering the big, beribboned bagpipes. The Skidars were what they call a Pioneer regiment, and the bagpipes made the national music of half their men. The native officers held bundles of polo-sticks, long cane-handled mallets, and as the grand stand filled after lunch they arranged themselves by ones and twos at different points round the ground, so that if a stick were broken the player would not have far to ride for a new one. An impatient British Cavalry Band struck up “If you want to know the time, ask a p’leeceman!” and the two umpires in light dust-coats danced out on two little excited ponies. The four players of the Archangels’ team followed, and the sight of their beautiful mounts made Shiraz groan again.
“Wait till we know,” said The Maltese Cat. “Two of ’em are playing in blinkers, and that means they can’t see to get out of the way of their own side, or they may shy at the umpires’ ponies. They’ve all got white web-reins that are sure to stretch or slip!”
“And,” said Kittiwynk, dancing to take the stiffness out of her, “they carry their whips in their hands instead of on their wrists. Hah!”
“True enough. No man can manage his stick and his reins and his whip that way,” said The Maltese Cat. “I’ve fallen over every square yard of the Malta ground, and I ought to know.”
He quivered his little, flea-bitten withers just to show how satisfied he felt; but his heart was not so light. Ever since he had drifted into India on a troop-ship, taken, with an old rifle, as part payment for a racing debt, The Maltese Cat had played and preached polo to the Skidars’ team on the Skidars’ stony pologround. Now a polo-pony is like a poet. If he is born with a love for the game, he can be made. The Maltese Cat knew that bamboos grew solely in order that poloballs might be turned from their roots, that grain was given to ponies to keep them in hard condition, and that ponies were shod to prevent them slipping on a turn. But, besides all these things, he knew every trick and device of the finest game in the world, and for two seasons had been teaching the others all he knew or guessed.
“Remember,” he said for the hundredth time, as the riders came up, “you must play together, and you must play with your heads. Whatever happens, follow the ball. Who goes out first?”
Kittiwynk, Shiraz, Polaris, and a short high little bay fellow with tremendous hocks and no withers worth speaking of (he was called Corks) were being girthed up, and the soldiers in the background stared with all their eyes.
“I want you men to keep quiet,” said Lutyens, the captain of the team, “and especially not to blow your pipes.”
“Not if we win, Captain Sahib?” asked the piper.
“If we win you can do what you please,” said Lutyens, with a smile, as he slipped the loop of his stick over his wrist, and wheeled to canter to his place. The Archangels’ ponies were a little bit above themselves on account of the many-coloured crowd so close to the ground. Their riders were excellent players, but they were a team of crack players instead of a crack team; and that made all the difference in the world. They honestly meant to play together, but it is very hard for four men, each the best of the team he is picked from, to remember that in polo no brilliancy in hitting or riding makes up for playing alone. Their captain shouted his orders to them by name, and it is a curious thing that if you call his name aloud in public after an Englishman you make him hot and fretty. Lutyens said nothing to his men, because it had all been said before. He pulled up Shiraz, for he was playing “back,” to guard the goal. Powell on Polaris was half-back, and Macnamara and Hughes on Corks and Kittiwynk were forwards. The tough, bamboo ball was set in the middle of the ground, one hundred and fifty yards from the ends, and Hughes crossed sticks, heads up, with the Captain of the Archangels, who saw fit to play forward; that is a place from which you cannot easily control your team. The little click as the cane-shafts met was heard all over the ground, and then Hughes made some sort of quick wrist-stroke that just dribbled the ball a few yards. Kittiwynk knew that stroke of old, and followed as a cat follows a mouse. While the Captain of the Archangels was wrenching his pony round, Hughes struck with all his strength, and next instant Kittiwynk was away, Corks following close behind her, their little feet pattering like raindrops on glass.
“Pull out to the left,” said Kittiwynk between her teeth; “it’s coming your way, Corks!”
The back and half-back of the Archangels were tearing down on her just as she was within reach of the ball. Hughes leaned forward with a loose rein, and cut it away to the left almost under Kittiwynk’s foot, and it hopped and skipped off to Corks, who saw that, if he was not quick it would run beyond the boundaries. That long bouncing drive gave the Archangels time to wheel and send three men across the ground to head off Corks. Kittiwynk stayed where she was; for she knew the game. Corks was on the ball half a fraction of a second before the others came up, and Macnamara, with a backhanded stroke, sent it back across the ground to Hughes, who saw the way clear to the Archangels’ goal, and smacked the ball in before any one quite knew what had happened.
“That’s luck,” said Corks, as they changed ends. “A goal in three minutes for three hits, and no riding to speak of.”
“’Don’t know,” said Polaris. “We’ve made ’em angry too soon. Shouldn’t wonder if they tried to rush us off our feet next time.”
“Keep the ball hanging, then,” said Shiraz. “That wears out every pony that is not used to it.”
Next time there was no easy galloping across the ground. All the Archangels closed up as one man, but there they stayed, for Corks, Kittiwynk, and Polaris were somewhere on the top of the ball, marking time among the rattling sticks, while Shiraz circled about outside, waiting for a chance.
“We can do this all day,” said Polaris, ramming his quarters into the side of another pony. “Where do you think you’re shoving to?”
“I’ll—I’ll be driven in an ekka if I know,” was the gasping reply, “and I’d give a week’s feed to get my blinkers off. I can’t see anything.”
“The dust is rather bad. Whew! That was one for my off-hock. Where’s the ball, Corks?”
“Under my tail. At least, the man’s looking for it there! This is beautiful. They can’t use their sticks, and it’s driving ’em wild. Give old Blinkers a push and then he’ll go over.”
“Here, don’t touch me! I can’t see. I’ll—I’ll back out, I think,” said the pony in blinkers, who knew that if you can’t see all round your head, you cannot prop yourself against the shock.
Corks was watching the ball where it lay in the dust, close to his near fore-leg, with Macnamara’s shortened stick tap-tapping it from time to time. Kittiwynk was edging her way out of the scrimmage, whisking her stump of a tail with nervous excitement.
“Ho! They’ve got it,” she snorted. “Let me out!” and she galloped like a rifle-bullet just behind a tall lanky pony of the Archangels, whose rider was swinging up his stick for a stroke.
“Not to-day, thank you,” said Hughes, as the blow slid off his raised stick, and Kittiwynk laid her shoulder to the tall pony’s quarters, and shoved him aside just as Lutyens on Shiraz sent the ball where it had come from, and the tall pony went skating and slipping away to the left. Kittiwynk, seeing that Polaris had joined Corks in the chase for the ball up the ground, dropped into Polaris’ place, and then “time” was called.
The Skidars’ ponies wasted no time in kicking or fuming. They knew that each minute’s rest meant so much gain, and trotted off to the rails, and their saises began to scrape and blanket and rub them at once.
“Whew!” said Corks, stiffening up to get all the tickle of the big vulcanite scraper. “If we were playing pony for pony, we would bend those Archangels double in half an hour. But they’ll bring up fresh ones and fresh ones and fresh ones after that—you see.”
“Who cares?” said Polaris. “We’ve drawn first blood. Is my hock swelling?”
“Looks puffy,” said Corks. “You must have had rather a wipe. Don’t let it stiffen. You ‘ll be wanted again in half an hour.”
“What’s the game like?” said The Maltese Cat.
“Ground’s like your shoe, except where they put too much water on it,” said Kittiwynk. “Then it’s slippery. Don’t play in the centre. There’s a bog there. I don’t know how their next four are going to behave, but we kept the ball hanging, and made ’em lather for nothing. Who goes out? Two Arabs and a couple of country-breds! That’s bad. What a comfort it is to wash your mouth out!”
Kitty was talking with a neck of a lather-covered soda-water bottle between her teeth, and trying to look over her withers at the same time. This gave her a very coquettish air.
“What’s bad?” said Grey Dawn, giving to the girth and admiring his well-set shoulders.
“You Arabs can’t gallop fast enough to keep yourselves warm—that’s what Kitty means,” said Polaris, limping to show that his hock needed attention. “Are you playing back, Grey Dawn?”
“’Looks like it,” said Grey Dawn, as Lutyens swung himself up. Powell mounted The Rabbit, a plain bay country-bred much like Corks, but with mulish ears. Macnamara took Faiz-Ullah, a handy, short-backed little red Arab with a long tail, and Hughes mounted Benami, an old and sullen brown beast, who stood over in front more than a polo-pony should.
“Benami looks like business,” said Shiraz. “How’s your temper, Ben?” The old campaigner hobbled off without answering, and The Maltese Cat looked at the new Archangel ponies prancing about on the ground. They were four beautiful blacks, and they saddled big enough and strong enough to eat the Skidars’ team and gallop away with the meal inside them.
“Blinkers again,” said The Maltese Cat. “Good enough!”
“They’re chargers-cavalry chargers!” said Kittiwynk, indignantly. “They’ll never see thirteen-three again.”
“They’ve all been fairly measured, and they’ve all got their certificates,” said The Maltese Cat, “or they wouldn’t be here. We must take things as they come along, and keep your eyes on the ball.”
The game began, but this time the Skidars were penned to their own end of the ground, and the watching ponies did not approve of that.
“Faiz-Ullah is shirking—as usual,” said Polaris, with a scornful grunt.
“Faiz-Ullah is eating whip,” said Corks. They could hear the leather-thonged polo-quirt lacing the little fellow’s well-rounded barrel. Then The Rabbit’s shrill neigh came across the ground.
“I can’t do all the work,” he cried, desperately.
“Play the game—don’t talk,” The Maltese Cat whickered; and all the ponies wriggled with excitement, and the soldiers and the grooms gripped the railings and shouted. A black pony with blinkers had singled out old Benami, and was interfering with him in every possible way. They could see Benami shaking his head up and down, and flapping his under lip.
“There’ll be a fall in a minute,” said Polaris. “Benami is getting stuffy.”
The game flickered up and down between goal-post and goal-post, and the black ponies were getting more confident as they felt they had the legs of the others. The ball was hit out of a little scrimmage, and Benami and The Rabbit followed it, Faiz-Ullah only too glad to be quiet for an instant.
The blinkered black pony came up like a hawk, with two of his own side behind him, and Benami’s eye glittered as he raced. The question was which pony should make way for the other, for each rider was perfectly willing to risk a fall in a good cause. The black, who had been driven nearly crazy by his blinkers, trusted to his weight and his temper; but Benami knew how to apply his weight and how to keep his temper. They met, and there was a cloud of dust. The black was lying on his side, all the breath knocked out of his body. The Rabbit was a hundred yards up the ground with the ball, and Benami was sitting down. He had slid nearly ten yards on his tail, but he had had his revenge, and sat cracking his nostrils till the black pony rose.
“That’s what you get for interfering. Do you want any more?” said Benami, and he plunged into the game. Nothing was done that quarter, because Faiz-Ullah would not gallop, though Macnamara beat him whenever he could spare a second. The fall of the black pony had impressed his companions tremendously, and so the Archangels could not profit by Faiz-Ullah’s bad behaviour.
But as The Maltese Cat said when “time” was called, and the four came back blowing and dripping, Faiz-Ullah ought to have been kicked all round Umballa. If he did not behave better next time The Maltese Cat promised to pull out his Arab tail by the roots and—eat it.
There was no time to talk, for the third four were ordered out.
The third quarter of a game is generally the hottest, for each side thinks that the others must be pumped; and most of the winning play in a game is made about that time.
Lutyens took over The Maltese Cat with a pat and a hug, for Lutyens valued him more than anything else in the world; Powell had Shikast, a little grey rat with no pedigree and no manners outside polo; Macnamara mounted Bamboo, the largest of the team; and Hughes Who’s Who, alias The Animal. He was supposed to have Australian blood in his veins, but he looked like a clothes-horse, and you could whack his legs with an iron crow-bar without hurting him.
They went out to meet the very flower of the Archangels’ team; and when Who’s Who saw their elegantly booted legs and their beautiful satin skins, he grinned a grin through his light, well-worn bridle.
“My word!” said Who’s Who. “We must give ’em a little football. These gentlemen need a rubbing down.”
“No biting,” said The Maltese Cat, warningly; for once or twice in his career Who’s Who had been known to forget himself in that way.
“Who said anything about biting? I’m not playing tiddly-winks. I’m playing the game.”
The Archangels came down like a wolf on the fold, for they were tired of football, and they wanted polo. They got it more and more. Just after the game began, Lutyens hit a ball that was coming towards him rapidly, and it rolled in the air, as a ball sometimes will, with the whirl of a frightened partridge. Shikast heard, but could not see it for the minute, though he looked everywhere and up into the air as The Maltese Cat had taught him. When he saw it ahead and overhead he went forward with Powell as fast as he could put foot to ground. It was then that Powell, a quiet and level-headed man, as a rule, became inspired, and played a stroke that sometimes comes off successfully after long practice. He took his stick in both hands, and, standing up in his stirrups, swiped at the ball in the air, Munipore fashion. There was one second of paralysed astonishment, and then all four sides of the ground went up in a yell of applause and delight as the ball flew true (you could see the amazed Archangels ducking in their saddles to dodge the line of flight, and looking at it with open mouths), and the regimental pipes of the Skidars squealed from the railings as long as the pipers had breath. Shikast heard the stroke; but he heard the head of the stick fly off at the same time. Nine hundred and ninety-nine ponies out of a thousand would have gone tearing on after the ball with a useless player pulling at their heads; but Powell knew him, and he knew Powell; and the instant he felt Powell’s right leg shift a trifle on the saddle-flap, he headed to the boundary, where a native officer was frantically waving a new stick. Before the shouts had ended, Powell was armed again.
Once before in his life The Maltese Cat had heard that very same stroke played off his own back, and had profited by the confusion it wrought. This time he acted on experience, and leaving Bamboo to guard the goal in case of accidents, came through the others like a flash, head and tail low—Lutyens standing up to ease him—swept on and on before the other side knew what was the matter, and nearly pitched on his head between the Archangels’ goal-post as Lutyens kicked the ball in after a straight scurry of a hundred and fifty yards. If there was one thing more than another upon which The Maltese Cat prided himself, it was on this quick, streaking kind of run half across the ground. He did not believe in taking balls round the field unless you were clearly overmatched. After this they gave the Archangels five-minuted football; and an expensive fast pony hates football because it rumples his temper. Who’s Who showed himself even better than Polaris in this game. He did not permit any wriggling away, but bored joyfully into the scrimmage as if he had his nose in a feed-box and was looking for something nice. Little Shikast jumped on the ball the minute it got clear, and every time an Archangel pony followed it, he found Shikast standing over it, asking what was the matter.
“If we can live through this quarter,” said The Maltese Cat, “I sha’n’t care. Don’t take it out of yourselves. Let them do the lathering.”
So the ponies, as their riders explained afterwards, “shut-up.” The Archangels kept them tied fast in front of their goal, but it cost the Archangels’ ponies all that was left of their tempers; and ponies began to kick, and men began to repeat compliments, and they chopped at the legs of Who’s Who, and he set his teeth and stayed where he was, and the dust stood up like a tree over the scrimmage until that hot quarter ended.
They found the ponies very excited and confident when they went to their saises; and The Maltese Cat had to warn them that the worst of the game was coming.
“Now we are all going in for the second time,” said he, “and they are trotting out fresh ponies. You think you can gallop, but you’ll find you can’t; and then you’ll be sorry.”
“But two goals to nothing is a halter-long lead,” said Kittiwynk, prancing.
“How long does it take to get a goal?” The Maltese Cat answered. “For pity’s sake, don’t run away with a notion that the game is half-won just because we happen to be in luck now! They’ll ride you into the grand stand, if they can; you must not give ’em a chance. Follow the ball.”
“Football, as usual?” said Polaris. “My hock’s half as big as a nose-bag.”
“Don’t let them have a look at the ball, if you can help it. Now leave me alone. I must get all the rest I can before the last quarter.”
He hung down his head and let all his muscles go slack, Shikast, Bamboo, and Who’s Who copying his example.
“Better not watch the game,” he said. “We aren’t playing, and we shall only take it out of ourselves if we grow anxious. Look at the ground and pretend it’s fly-time.”
They did their best, but it was hard advice to follow. The hooves were drumming and the sticks were rattling all up and down the ground, and yells of applause from the English troops told that the Archangels were pressing the Skidars hard. The native soldiers behind the ponies groaned and grunted, and said things in undertones, and presently they heard a long-drawn shout and a clatter of hurrahs!
“One to the Archangels,” said Shikast, without raising his head. “Time’s nearly up. Oh, my sire and dam!”
“Faiz-Ullah,” said The Maltese Cat, “if you don’t play to the last nail in your shoes this time, I’ll kick you on the ground before all the other ponies.”
“I’ll do my best when my time comes,” said the little Arab, sturdily.
The saises looked at each other gravely as they rubbed their ponies’ legs. This was the time when long purses began to tell, and everybody knew it. Kittiwynk and the others came back, the sweat dripping over their hooves and their tails telling sad stories.
“They’re better than we are,” said Shiraz. “I knew how it would be.”
“Shut your big head,” said The Maltese Cat; “we’ve one goal to the good yet.”
“Yes; but it’s two Arabs and two country-breds to play now,” said Corks. “Faiz-Ullah, remember!” He spoke in a biting voice.
As Lutyens mounted Grey Dawn he looked at his men, and they did not look pretty. They were covered with dust and sweat in streaks. Their yellow boots were almost black, their wrists were red and lumpy, and their eyes seemed two inches deep in their heads; but the expression in the eyes was satisfactory.
“Did you take anything at tiffin?” said Lutyens; and the team shook their heads. They were too dry to talk.
“All right. The Archangels did. They are worse pumped than we are.”
“They’ve got the better ponies,” said Powell. “I sha’n’t be sorry when this business is over.”
That fifth quarter was a painful one in every way. Faiz-Ullah played like a little red demon, and The Rabbit seemed to be everywhere at once, and Benami rode straight at anything and everything that came in his way; while the umpires on their ponies wheeled like gulls outside the shifting game. But the Archangels had the better mounts,—they had kept their racers till late in the game,—and never allowed the Skidars to play football. They hit the ball up and down the width of the ground till Benami and the rest were outpaced. Then they went forward, and time and again Lutyens and Grey Dawn were just, and only just, able to send the ball away with a long, spitting backhander. Grey Dawn forgot that he was an Arab; and turned from grey to blue as he galloped. Indeed, he forgot too well, for he did not keep his eyes on the ground as an Arab should, but stuck out his nose and scuttled for the dear honour of the game. They had watered the ground once or twice between the quarters, and a careless waterman had emptied the last of his skinful all in one place near the Skidars’ goal. It was close to the end of the play, and for the tenth time Grey Dawn was bolting after the ball, when his near hind-foot slipped on the greasy mud, and he rolled over and over, pitching Lutyens just clear of the goal-post; and the triumphant Archangels made their goal. Then “time” was called-two goals all; but Lutyens had to be helped up, and Grey Dawn rose with his near hind-leg strained somewhere.
“What’s the damage?” said Powell, his arm around Lutyens.
“Collar-bone, of course,” said Lutyens, between his teeth. It was the third time he had broken it in two years, and it hurt him.
Powell and the others whistled.
“Game’s up,” said Hughes.
“Hold on. We’ve five good minutes yet, and it isn’t my right hand. We ‘ll stick it out.”
“I say,” said the Captain of the Archangels, trotting up, “are you hurt, Lutyens? We’ll wait if you care to put in a substitute. I wish—I mean—the fact is, you fellows deserve this game if any team does. ‘Wish we could give you a man, or some of our ponies—or something.”
“You ‘re awfully good, but we’ll play it to a finish, I think.”
The Captain of the Archangels stared for a little. “That’s not half bad,” he said, and went back to his own side, while Lutyens borrowed a scarf from one of his native officers and made a sling of it. Then an Archangel galloped up with a big bath-sponge, and advised Lutyens to put it under his armpit to ease his shoulder, and between them they tied up his left arm scientifically; and one of the native officers leaped forward with four long glasses that fizzed and bubbled.
The team looked at Lutyens piteously, and he nodded. It was the last quarter, and nothing would matter after that. They drank out the dark golden drink, and wiped their moustaches, and things looked more hopeful.
The Maltese Cat had put his nose into the front of Lutyens’ shirt and was trying to say how sorry he was.
“He knows,” said Lutyens, proudly. “The beggar knows. I’ve played him without a bridle before now—for fun.”
“It’s no fun now,” said Powell. “But we haven’t a decent substitute.”
“No,” said Lutyens. “It’s the last quarter, and we’ve got to make our goal and win. I’ll trust The Cat.”
“If you fall this time, you’ll suffer a little,” said Macnamara.
“I’ll trust The Cat,” said Lutyens.
“You hear that?” said The Maltese Cat, proudly, to the others. “It’s worth while playing polo for ten years to have that said of you. Now then, my sons, come along. We’ll kick up a little bit, just to show the Archangels this team haven’t suffered.”
And, sure enough, as they went on to the ground, The Maltese Cat, after satisfying himself that Lutyens was home in the saddle, kicked out three or four times, and Lutyens laughed. The reins were caught up anyhow in the tips of his strapped left hand, and he never pretended to rely on them. He knew The Cat would answer to the least pressure of the leg, and by way of showing off—for his shoulder hurt him very much—he bent the little fellow in a close figure-of-eight in and out between the goal-posts. There was a roar from the native officers and men, who dearly loved a piece of dugabashi (horse-trick work), as they called it, and the pipes very quietly and scornfully droned out the first bars of a common bazaar tune called “Freshly Fresh and Newly New,” just as a warning to the other regiments that the Skidars were fit. All the natives laughed.
“And now,” said The Maltese Cat, as they took their place, “remember that this is the last quarter, and follow the ball!”
“Don’t need to be told,” said Who’s Who.
“Let me go on. All those people on all four sides will begin to crowd in—just as they did at Malta. You’ll hear people calling out, and moving forward and being pushed back; and that is going to make the Archangel ponies very unhappy. But if a ball is struck to the boundary, you go after it, and let the people get out of your way. I went over the pole of a four-in-hand once, and picked a game out of the dust by it. Back me up when I run, and follow the ball.”
There was a sort of an all-round sound of sympathy and wonder as the last quarter opened, and then there began exactly what The Maltese Cat had foreseen. People crowded in close to the boundaries, and the Archangels’ ponies kept looking sideways at the narrowing space. If you know how a man feels to be cramped at tennis—not because he wants to run out of the court, but because he likes to know that he can at a pinch—you will guess how ponies must feel when they are playing in a box of human beings.
“I’ll bend some of those men if I can get away,” said Who’s Who, as he rocketed behind the ball; and Bamboo nodded without speaking. They were playing the last ounce in them, and The Maltese Cat had left the goal undefended to join them. Lutyens gave him every order that he could to bring him back, but this was the first time in his career that the little wise grey had ever played polo on his own responsibility, and he was going to make the most of it.
“What are you doing here?” said Hughes, as The Cat crossed in front of him and rode off an Archangel.
“The Cat’s in charge—mind the goal!” shouted Lutyens, and bowing forward hit the ball full, and followed on, forcing the Archangels towards their own goal.
“No football,” said The Maltese Cat. “Keep the ball by the boundaries and cramp ’em. Play open order, and drive ’em to the boundaries.”
Across and across the ground in big diagonals flew the ball, and whenever it came to a flying rush and a stroke close to the boundaries the Archangel ponies moved stiffly. They did not care to go headlong at a wall of men and carriages, though if the ground had been open they could have turned on a sixpence.
“Wriggle her up the sides,” said The Cat. “Keep her close to the crowd. They hate the carriages. Shikast, keep her up this side.”
Shikast and Powell lay left and right behind the uneasy scuffle of an open scrimmage, and every time the ball was hit away Shikast galloped on it at such an angle that Powell was forced to hit it towards the boundary; and when the crowd had been driven away from that side, Lutyens would send the ball over to the other, and Shikast would slide desperately after it till his friends came down to help. It was billiards, and no football, this time—billiards in a corner pocket; and the cues were not well chalked.
“If they get us out in the middle of the ground they’ll walk away from us. Dribble her along the sides,” cried The Maltese Cat.
So they dribbled all along the boundary, where a pony could not come on their right-hand side; and the Archangels were furious, and the umpires had to neglect the game to shout at the people to get back, and several blundering mounted policemen tried to restore order, all close to the scrimmage, and the nerves of the Archangels’ ponies stretched and broke like cob-webs.
Five or six times an Archangel hit the ball up into the middle of the ground, and each time the watchful Shikast gave Powell his chance to send it back, and after each return, when the dust had settled, men could see that the Skidars had gained a few yards.
Every now and again there were shouts of “Side! Off side!” from the spectators; but the teams were too busy to care, and the umpires had all they could do to keep their maddened ponies clear of the scuffle.
At last Lutyens missed a short easy stroke, and the Skidars had to fly back helter-skelter to protect their own goal, Shikast leading. Powell stopped the ball with a backhander when it was not fifty yards from the goalposts, and Shikast spun round with a wrench that nearly hoisted Powell out of his saddle.
“Now’s our last chance,” said The Cat, wheeling like a cockchafer on a pin. “We’ve got to ride it out. Come along.”
Lutyens felt the little chap take a deep breath, and, as it were, crouch under his rider. The ball was hopping towards the right-hand boundary, an Archangel riding for it with both spurs and a whip; but neither spur nor whip would make his pony stretch himself as he neared the crowd. The Maltese Cat glided under his very nose, picking up his hind legs sharp, for there was not a foot to spare between his quarters and the other pony’s bit. It was as neat an exhibition as fancy figure-skating. Lutyens hit with all the strength he had left, but the stick slipped a little in his hand, and the ball flew off to the left instead of keeping close to the boundary. Who’s Who was far across the ground, thinking hard as he galloped. He repeated stride for stride The Cat’s manoeuvres with another Archangel pony, nipping the ball away from under his bridle, and clearing his opponent by half a fraction of an inch, for Who’s Who was clumsy behind. Then he drove away towards the right as The Maltese Cat came up from the left; and Bamboo held a middle course exactly between them. The three were making a sort of Government-broad-arrow-shaped attack; and there was only the Archangels’ back to guard the goal; but immediately behind them were three Archangels racing all they knew, and mixed up with them was Powell sending Shikast along on what he felt was their last hope. It takes a very good man to stand up to the rush of seven crazy ponies in the last quarters of a Cup game, when men are riding with their necks for sale, and the ponies are delirious. The Archangels’ back missed his stroke and pulled aside just in time to let the rush go by. Bamboo and Who’s Who shortened stride to give The Cat room, and Lutyens got the goal with a clean, smooth, smacking stroke that was heard all over the field. But there was no stopping the ponies. They poured through the goalposts in one mixed mob, winners and losers together, for the pace had been terrific. The Maltese Cat knew by experience what would happen, and, to save Lutyens, turned to the right with one last effort, that strained a back-sinew beyond hope of repair. As he did so he heard the right-hand goalpost crack as a pony cannoned into it—crack, splinter and fall like a mast. It had been sawed three parts through in case of accidents, but it upset the pony nevertheless, and he blundered into another, who blundered into the left-hand post, and then there was confusion and dust and wood. Bamboo was lying on the ground, seeing stars; an Archangel pony rolled beside him, breathless and angry; Shikast had sat down dog-fashion to avoid falling over the others, and was sliding along on his little bobtail in a cloud of dust; and Powell was sitting on the ground, hammering with his stick and trying to cheer. All the others were shouting at the top of what was left of their voices, and the men who had been spilt were shouting too. As soon as the people saw no one was hurt, ten thousand native and English shouted and clapped and yelled, and before any one could stop them the pipers of the Skidars broke on to the ground, with all the native officers and men behind them, and marched up and down, playing a wild Northern tune called “Zakhme Began,” and through the insolent blaring of the pipes and the high-pitched native yells you could hear the Archangels’ band hammering, “For they are all jolly good fellows,” and then reproachfully to the losing team, “Ooh, Kafoozalum! Kafoozalum! Kafoozalum!”
Besides all these things and many more, there was a Commander-in-chief, and an Inspector-General of Cavalry, and the principal veterinary officer of all India standing on the top of a regimental coach, yelling like school-boys; and brigadiers and colonels and commissioners, and hundreds of pretty ladies joined the chorus. But The Maltese Cat stood with his head down, wondering how many legs were left to him; and Lutyens watched the men and ponies pick themselves out of the wreck of the two goal-posts, and he patted The Maltese Cat very tenderly.
“I say,” said the Captain of the Archangels, spitting a pebble out of his mouth, “will you take three thousand for that pony—as he stands?”
“No thank you. I’ve an idea he’s saved my life,” said Lutyens, getting off and lying down at full length. Both teams were on the ground too, waving their boots in the air, and coughing and drawing deep breaths, as the saises ran up to take away the ponies, and an officious water-carrier sprinkled the players with dirty water till they sat up.
“My aunt!” said Powell, rubbing his back, and looking at the stumps of the goal-posts, “That was a game!”
They played it over again, every stroke of it, that night at the big dinner, when the Free-for-All Cup was filled and passed down the table, and emptied and filled again, and everybody made most eloquent speeches. About two in the morning, when there might have been some singing, a wise little, plain little, grey little head looked in through the open door.
“Hurrah! Bring him in,” said the Archangels; and his sais, who was very happy indeed, patted The Maltese Cat on the flank, and he limped in to the blaze of light and the glittering uniforms, looking for Lutyens. He was used to messes, and men’s bedrooms, and places where ponies are not usually encouraged, and in his youth had jumped on and off a mess-table for a bet. So he behaved himself very politely, and ate bread dipped in salt, and was petted all round the table, moving gingerly; and they drank his health, because he had done more to win the Cup than any man or horse on the ground.
That was glory and honour enough for the rest of his days, and The Maltese Cat did not complain much when the veterinary surgeon said that he would be no good for polo any more. When Lutyens married, his wife did not allow him to play, so he was forced to be an umpire; and his pony on these occasions was a flea-bitten grey with a neat polo-tail, lame all round, but desperately quick on his feet, and, as everybody knew, Past Pluperfect Prestissimo Player of the Game.