Monday, March 19, 2012
Flashman at the Charge - Chapter 7
In the opening of the 7th chapter of Flashman at the Charge Pencherjevsky’s house is besieged by peasants enraged at the callous murder of their priests. Throughout his travels through Russia and during his sojourn at Pencherjevsky's, Flashman had viewed the serfs as little better than beasts of burden. He had occasionally wondered if they had a breaking point, apparently they did and the senseless murder of the priest was it. It seemed that the local landlord could do anything he wished to them, but hurt or kill their priest and you crossed a line. This revolt must have seemed pretty major to Harry because he compared it to some of the other major uprisings he’d seen throughout his long career, including Kabul (Flashman) and Peking (a packet that never unfortunately surfaced). Pencherjevsky urges Flashman and East to take Valla and a sled and make for safety, he strongly hints that Valla is pregnant with Flashman’s child. Initially East doesn’t want to leave, but Flashman reminds him of his ‘duty’ to escape and he’s all for it, especially when he realises that they’ll be doing so with Valla.
The Russian sled is one of the more interesting things that Harry has made his escape on, and it would film brilliantly, being both exciting and funny at the same time. Harry and East are initially chased by wolves. Valla is largely unconscious for this. East drives and Harry occupies himself by throwing things at the wolves. Mostly rugs, but they don’t slow the starving beasts down unless he can score a direct hit, they also ignore the food, generally bread, that Harry hurls at them in the vain hope they’ll give up the chase. They do manage to outpace the wolves long enough to reach a small settlement, where they rest, refuel and take on fresh horses.
Harry manages to content himself with Valla, she seems to have quite taken to his lovemaking and is happy to let Flashman take his pleasure with her. East is too interested in driving to chance a look behind the sled’s cover and it appears that Harry and Valla are relatively quiet about their business. What the two Englishmen are making for is a narrow causeway called the Arrow of Arabat. It’s a great name, very evocative and it just screams 'boys own adventure' of the 19th and early 20th centuries. It’s actually a real geographical phenomenon and it will carry Harry and East to a British held area where they can report to their British command about Ignatieff’s plan for Central Asia and Northern India (the area we now know as Pakistan).
They look home free and in the Flashman books that’s always a dangerous thing. Harry’s lost count of how many times he can see the finishing post, only to miss sight of the dirty big pothole right under his feet. This time the pothole is in the form of a group of mounted Russian soldiers. Because the cavalry aren’t towing a sled they can move faster than the escaping soldiers and may be able to take them, the sled needs to be lightened. East drives like a madman and Flashman starts throwing everything out, including the canopy, which exposes them to the elements, but cuts down on drag, when the Russians still keep gaining on them Flashman does something that while it was a shock to me the first time I read it, I really should have expected. He hurls Valla out of the sled! Personal survival at all costs. East is horrified, partially because it’s such a callous act, which could have killed the girl and partially because he’s still got a crush on her. Flashman convinces him to keep on going and plays it so that it looks like he’s a stone hearted so and so who will do anything for Queen and Country when it counts.
Unfortunately the sled comes to grief on the ice and Flashman is pinned under it. East has two options here. He can leave Flashman and leg it, probably making it to the British outpost with his vital information, or he can stay and help Harry, but they’ll probably both be caught. He takes the first option, telling Harry that he can’t let his sacrifice and his actions in possibly killing Valla go to naught. When the boot’s on the other foot Harry isn’t quite so brave or forgiving, he calls East every name he can think of, and believes even 50 years later with Harry ‘Scud’ East long dead, that the action was taken largely out of spite for Valla, not due to his duty.