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; and that’s because we play with our heads as well as with our feet.’
‘It makes me feel undersized and unhappy all the same,’ said Kittiwynk, a mouse-coloured mare with a red browband and the cleanest pair of legs that ever an aged pony owned. ‘They’ve twice our size, these others.’
Kittiwynk looked at the gathering and sighed. The hard, dusty Umballa polo-ground was lined with thousands of soldiers, black and white, not counting hundreds and hundreds of carriages, and drags, and dog-carts, 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 each other exactly how the game should be played.
It was a glorious sight, and the come-and-go of the little quick hoofs, and the incessant salutations of ponies that had met before on other polo-grounds or racecourses, 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, golden-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.’
‘O-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 halfbreeds of Upper India. When we’ve won this cup they’ll give their shoes to know us.’
‘We shan’t win the cup,’ said Shiraz. ‘How do you feel?’
‘Stale as last night’s feed when a musk-rat 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 lets the saises know whether your boots are tight.’
Each pony had his sais, his groom, who lived and ate and slept with the pony, and had betted a great deal more than he could afford on the result of the game. There was no chance of anything going wrong, and, 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 be-ribboned bagpipes. The Skidars were what the -- [End of Preview.]