Monday, February 13, 2012

Flash for Freedom - Chapter 11

In chapter 11 of Flash for Freedom Flashman is shackled, tossed in a wagon and taken off for sale somewhere. Things look pretty grim. He’s not alone in the wagon, he’s sharing it with a woman called Cassy.

At first looks Flashman thinks Cassy is white, and she’s probably more white than negro, but in the southern US states back then, a drop of negro blood counted more than any white blood, and you were racially classified that way. Cassy was what was generally referred to as a musteefino, or mustee, the plan was to pass Flashman off as the same. Initially Cassy refuses to believe that Flashman is white, scornfully telling him that ‘most of us stop saying that when we’re 10 years old!’ A look at his hands, more specifically his fingernails, convinces her of the truth.

Cassy’s story is one of the saddest I can remember reading in the Flashman books. She was born free, the daughter of a Creole father and his slave wife. He already had two sons by the time Cassy and her sister were born, and her mother raised the boys as if they were her own. When Cassy’s father died the boys repaid that kindness by selling their sisters and stepmother into slavery. Cassy found herself the property of a New Orleans madam, but she was not Susie Willinck, much crueller, and the terrified girl (she was 13 at the time) ran back to her brothers, who promptly imprisoned her and arranged for her to be returned to her owner. As punishment for running Cassy was taken to a ‘whipping house’ and given 10 lashes (the sentence was reduced in view of her age). One of the observers admired her courage and gave her a dollar. She got the receipt and was told by the madam to keep it as a ‘reminder’. She still has that receipt and her bill of sale in her possession when she meets Harry. I found the receipt very moving, written in a clumsy unlettered hand it reads: ‘Wensh Cassy. Ten lashys. Wun dollar.’ I don’t know if George MacDonald Fraser based Cassy’s tale of woe on a real account or a number of them, but it was very touching and sadly I don’t doubt that things like that did take place. The ‘whipping house’ concept was new to me (a place where owners could take their errant slaves for correction), but again it too was probably horribly real.

Between them Cassy and Flashman come up with a plan to get free. To be honest it’s mostly Cassy’s idea, generally Harry’s female accomplices are far more intelligent and resourceful than he is, which makes sense as he’s mostly bluff and bravado. The way she disposes of the two men who were transporting the pair of them actually scares Harry a little, but then given what she’s gone through he does understand it to an extent. Cassy initially suggests they take to robbery until they can get to freedom, but Harry has always baulked at that particular option, most of it is his natural cowardice asserting itself, but as he rightly points out, the robbery option is going to bring them unwanted attention and pursuit.

It is again Cassy who has the next idea in their audacious bid for freedom. She suggests that Harry pose as her master and auction her off to the highest bidder. Once she’s been paid for, he purchases passage on a northbound riverboat and she’ll escape from her holding pen and the two of them run to freedom. It seems risky, but it’s a decent if dangerous plan with a lot that could go wrong, however Harry has no better ideas and Cassy is certainly game. Her main problem is that she doesn’t trust people, especially men, white men in particular, so putting trust in Harry is hard for her. She does so because she has no other option. Harry’s largely bound to her for his own safety, so will see this through, scared though he may be.

The first problem is that the ticket seller at the riverboat is largely deaf and Harry can’t be sure he’s got the message across that the boat is bound for Louisville. He simply has to hope that the man heard him and told him the right thing. Again at the auction house there’s another conversation which clearly indicates that to the white slave owning populace their coloured workers were simply cattle. It’s really extraordinary to read it and it makes me shudder every time I realise they’re talking about people here.

Cassy fetches a good price and someone even tells Flashman that had he sold her in a bigger town he could have doubled his money. Once the transaction is completed, he goes shopping and sends someone to buy the riverboat tickets, this is a mistake he owns up to in hindsight, but then he did have to buy clothes for himself and Cassy so that she was less likely to be recognised. Cassy is late in getting to their renedevous, escaping was more trouble than she’d reckoned with and she was very nearly caught, plus they’ve got slave hunters out looking for her. With a mixture of threats and promises Flashman manages to get the girl to pull herself together and on the riverboat they fall into bed together.

Despite how clever, determined and courageous Cassy was I could never warm to her as one of Flashman’s ladies. I knew she wouldn’t betray him, but she was different to many of them. They were thrown together, he never pursued her and she never seemed to mean all that much to him, even though he admits she was very beautiful. A lot of their interaction seemed to be business as usual. I have to admit when I first read Flash for Freedom though I was worried that Harry may lose his nerve and leave her high and dry.

They seem safe now, so the book should be close to finishing, but it’s not, so what else can possibly go wrong now?

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