Thursday, December 8, 2011

Flashman - Chapter 11

The 11th chapter of Flashman is full of action and some of it could have come right out of the pages of a Boys Own Adventure annual. It also contains the first of the fever dream sequences. People don’t generally mention them, but I will, because I really like them. I haven’t seen anyone who can write these as well as George MacDonald Fraser. Dave Sim came close, but he had the advantage of being able to illustrate his, Fraser had to do it all with words.

While making their escape Hudson and Flashman happen to see the 44ths valiant last stand at Gandamack. This is what Elphy Bey had led them to. A pathetic brave few desperately fighting for survival against superior numbers. Flashman does not believe anyone survived, although one British officer; Assistant Surgeon William Brydon, did manage to reach Jalallabad. At one point Harry feels that Hudson has become so emotional about what he’s seeing that he may either give their position away or ride into the massacre itself. Flashman also mentions a rather famous painting done of the stand, which he viewed years later and shocked other people there by giving vocal vent to his feelings about the futility of the whole thing. I can see his point, and I have the feeling that while he doesn’t say it in public Flashman’s view is one George MacDonald Fraser also held.

Hudson and Flashman didn’t last long, they were soon captured by a group of Afghans working for Gul Shah. I’m not sure what happened to the lancers, they seem to have disappeared by this point. Flashman says that as jails go, and this is something he has wide experience of, having been imprisoned from back at home in England to Australia and everywhere in between (in his opinion Mexico is the worst, yet another thing that makes me wish George MacDonald Fraser had been able to get down Flashman’s adventures in the Mexican conflict that followed the American Civil War), the Afghan one wasn’t that bad, although as the time it seemed like the worst place in the world. I’m sure that the presence of his sworn enemy Gul Shah and Narreeman, now Shah’s wife, make the experience that much more terrifying. Flashman is overcome enough with fear that he breaks down and confesses everything to Hudson, although he has the presence of mind to not be completely truthful about the Bloody Lance incident.

After letting Flashman stew for some time, Gul Shah visits his prisoners, and has Hudson removed to another cell before chaining Flashman to the ceiling by his wrists. Narreeman is also present. Shah tries to put the wind up Harry (not really necessary) by promising to at some point give him to Narreeman and letting her take revenge for his violation of her. This does really worry Flashman because Afghan women are reputed to be extremely skilled torturers. Gul Shah actually threatened to blind Flashman (this appeared to be a popular punishment in that part of the world at the time), remove his fingers and toes and keep him as a slave, praying for death.

What he does do is flog the Englishmen rather viciously. Initially it’s for information, although Flashman quite truthfully professes to know nothing. I suspect that most of it Gul Shah does for personal pleasure and revenge, he does admit that he recognises Flashman as too much of a coward to hold information back if divulging it would spare him physical pain. This is curiously one of the few times that Flashman is actually tortured. He’s threatened with it often during the books, but is generally rescued or escapes before anything can be done. In hindsight bearing the scars of the beating probably enhanced his heroic reputation, and made it harder for people to see him as anything other than incredibly brave.

When Hudson is returned to the cell he is incensed by the fact that Flashman was whipped, and determines to escape. The plucky sergeant does so, first freeing himself and then Flashman. He kills Gul Shah, and takes Narreeman hostage. This is when Hudson finds out what sort of a man Harry really is, and when he realises that despite appearances Flashman is no gentleman officer. Once they’re far enough away Hudson proposes releasing Nareeman. Flashman wants to kill her, I believe ‘cut her to pieces’ were his exact words. Hudson releases her, and Flashman really isn’t in any position to stop him, although if it had come down to a fight I believe Hudson would have killed Flashman. He’s formed the opinion that he’s travelling with someone pretty low.

The two men make their way to Jalallabad, which to their dismay is under siege from a large Afghan force. Unable to get to the city, they instead decide to seek anctuary at a nearby fort, which is also under siege, but not as heavily. The one remaining British soldier (the rest of the defenders of the fort are Indian sepoys); a Sergeant Wells, is pleased to see two more British soldiers, one an officer, and welcomes them in. Flashman immediately gets under cover and tries to sleep. He’s in pain, exhausted, emotionally wrecked, and mildly feverish. It is during this period that he has this bizarre fever dream:

I was back in the cell, with Gul Shah and Narreeman, and Gul was laughing at me, and changing into Bernier with his pistol raised, and then into Elphy Bey saying, "We shall have to cut off all your essentials, Flashman, I'm afraid there is no help for it. I shall send a note to Sir William." And Narreeman's eyes grew greater and greater, until I saw them in Elspeth's face - Elspeth smiling and very beautiful, fading in her turn to become Arnold, who was threatening to flog me for not knowing my construe. "Unhappy boy, I wash my hands of you; you must leave my pit of snakes and dwarves this very day." And he reached out and took me by the shoulder; his eyes were burning like coals and his fingers bit into my shoulder so that I cried out and tried to pull them free, and found myself scrabbling at Hudson's fingers as he knelt beside my couch.

After Wells is killed, Hudson takes charge, and forces Flashman at sword point from his bed, and into at least making the appearance of being a soldier to give heart and the illusion of command to the sepoys, although both men are aware that they’re probably going to die defending this fort. Hudson also tells Flashman his opinion of the man. He suspected he wasn’t what he appeared when he babbled in the cell, his attempt to kill Narreeman clinched it, and he wasn’t surprised when Flashman tried to shirk his duty when they got to the fort, but he’s going to ensure that if Flashman can’t live like a gentleman he’s damned well going to die like one.

As it becomes apparent that the Afghan forces are going to take the fort Flashman wonders if he can trade his life for the colours (the British flag still flying above the fort), Hudson sees what Flashman is planning and both men make for the flagpole, and try to lower the flag. Hudson is killed, and Flashman is clutching the colours, when a blast from a cannon hits the fort, and he descends back into blackness again.

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