Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Flashman at the Charge - Chapter 6

Chapter 6 of Flashman at the Charge is a longish one, but it's also highly entertaining.

The last time most readers of Flashman's adventures saw Scud East he was telling Harry that he was sorry to see him expelled from Rugby. Flashman didn't believe him at the time, but with the way Harry East is, it was probably true.

East is, like Flashman, a political. According to the notes in the back the further details of East's military career could be found in the sequel to Tom Brown's Schooldays, Tom Brown at Oxford. Unlike Harry, East takes his duties rather seriously and thinks of escape, that is when he's not lusting after Pencherjevsky's voluptuous blonde daughter; Valla.

The count is described by East as being a loud-mouthed, brutal, tyrannical ogre. After meeting him Flashman agrees, but Pencherjevsky takes a liking to Flashman, seeing him mistakenly as a kindred spirit. Harry's looks and his reputation have once again assisted him. It's highly unlikely that George MacDonald Fraser based Pencherjevsky on a real person, but there was actually a Cossack commander by the name of Pencherjevsky and Fraser links him to that person by connecting him to the same regiment the real Pencherjevsky commanded. It's another example of the great attention to detail that Fraser often does display in the books. I did find a possible continuity error during one of Pencherjevsky's conversations with Flashman. The Count mentions Karl Marx in an unfavourable light and Flashman doesn't think he can mention that the man was an uninvited guest at his wedding (see Royal Flash), and it is true that someone who may have been Marx did show up when Flashman married Duchess Irma, but Flashman never realised who the protestor at the wedding was.

Flashman again comments on the way the serfs were treated. He uses an incident with Valla where she bet a serf's hair at cards and then after the girl had been shorn banished her from the house and begged fifty roubles from her father to get a new maid. Apparently the hair was worth thirty. Flashman also talks about the arbitrary judgements handed down by Pencherjevsky to hs serfs at his weekly meeting with them. They were regularly sentenced to floggings with cudgels or whips and sent to Siberia for the most trifling of matters and yet Pencherjevsky defends himself by saying that he is more lenient than most land holders because he doesn't use the knout or the foot press.

In one of Harry's more bizarre sexual encounters he is introduced to the Russian custom of the steam bath by Pencherjevsky's sister; Sara, whom everyone seems to refer to as Aunt Sara. She birches Harry in the steam, then has him do the same to her before indulging in a frenzied bout of love making. It is after this encounter that Pencherjevsky virtually pimps out Harry to Valla. Valla is married, but the Count doesn't think her husband is capable of getting her with child, and the idea of a grandson sired by Harry appeals to him. Scud East is also besotted with the girl.

A number of high ranking officials turn up to the property for some sort of meeting. Harry East insists that they should eavesdrop and see what they can hear as it may prove useful to the Empire. They hear far more than they should and most of it involves a plot hatched by Ignatieff (to Harry's horror he was present) to forment unrest amongst the natives of India and thus remove the British troops and replace them with Russian ones. East says that they have to escape and deliver this information to their superiors in the British army, he's even researched the route. Harry is of course against this, but has to at least make it look like he's doing the smart thing. There was also the suggestion that Tsar Nicholas of Russia was at the meeting, and if Fraser's reading of Flashman's dates are right then the Tsar didn't live long after the meeting.

Flashman may have been able to sit the war out in relative comfort had it not been for a chance happening. The village's priest and a character called Blank (who Fraser's notes suggest may have been one of Lenin's ancestors) come to Pencherjevsky to beg him to pay the soul tax for one of his serfs, an old lady who cannot afford it. Pencherjevsky refuses and sends his cossacks to teach Blank a lesson. They can't find Blank, but instead flog the priest who dies. The serfs will take a lot, but don't ever interfere with their religion. The chapter ends with the house under attack as the enraged peasants revolt at the murder of their priest.

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