Since I have got back most of my Flashman collection, you will have to remain resigned to reading a lot of excerpts here.
This is one of my many favourites through the whole oeuvre and since it deals with a ramble through Lucknow during the dark days of the 1857 rising, I think it is worthy of being included here, apart from the fact that it is a ripping adventure yarn and one of the best examples of supremely comic writing I have had the fortune to come across. Naturally, a little bit of background is in order – but only a little and you may find the rest on your own. The Siege of the Lucknow Residency is a major feature of the whole episode, and its first relief by Gen Henry Havelock (mentioned here, and soon to figure more) turned out to be a reinforcement since the relieving force soon found itself hemmed in with the garrison – and this was how (the soon to be Sir) Harry Flashman found himself there. Seven weeks later, a stronger force led by Sir Colin Campbell was approaching and one November Day, the sound of fighting and the sound of pipes was faintly heard in the distance. Now read on…..
~~~~ So there was continued jubilation throughout the garrison, and (Sir James) Outram sniffed and grunted and chewed his cheroot and called a staff conference.
He had been smuggling out messages by native spies all through the siege, and now the relief force was so close he wanted to send explicit directions to Campbell on the best route to take in fighting his way through the streets and gardens of Lucknow to the Residency. It was a great maze of a place, and our folk had had the deuce of a struggle getting in two months earlier, being cut up badly in the alleys. Outram wanted to be sure that Campbell didn’t have the same trouble, for he had a bare 5,000 men against 60,000 pandies, and if they strayed or were ambushed it might be the end of them – and consequently of us.
I didn’t have much part in their deliberations, beyond helping Outram draft his message in the secret Greek code he employed, and making a desperate hash of it. One of the Sappers had the best route all plotted out, and while they talked about that I went into the big verandah room adjoining to rest from the noon heat, convalescent-like. I sprawled on the cot, with my boots off, and must have dozed off, for when I came to it was late afternoon, the murmur of many voices from beyond the chick screen had gone, and there were only two men talking. Outram was saying:
“… it is a hare-brained risk, surely – a white man proposing to make his way disguised as a native through a city packed with hostiles! And if he’s caught – and the message falls into their hands? What then, Napier?”
“True enough,” says Napier, “but to get a guide out to Campbell – a guide who can point his way for him – is better than a thousand messages of direction. And Kavanaugh knows the streets like a bazaar-wallah.”
“No doubt he does,” mutters Outram, “but he’ll no more pass for a native than my aunt’s parrot. What – he’s more than six feet tall, flaming red hair, blue eyes, and talks poor Hindi with a Donegal accent! Kananji may not be able to guide Campbell, but at least we can be sure he’ll get a message to him.”
“Kananji swears he won’t go if Kavanaugh does. He’s ready to go alone, but he says Kavanaugh’s bound to be spotted.”
“There you are, then!” I could hear Outram muttering and puffing on a fresh cheroot, “Confound it, Napier – he’s a brave man… and I own that if he could reach Campbell his knowledge of the byways of Lucknow would be beyond price – but he’s harder to disguise than…. damme, than any man in the garrison.”
I listened with some interest to this. I knew Kavanaugh, a great freckled Irish bumpkin of a civilian who’d spent the siege playing tig with pandy besiegers in the tunnels beneath our defences – mad as a hatter. And now madder still, by the sound of it, if he proposed to get through the enemy lines to Campbell. I saw Outram’s problem – Kavanaugh was the one man who’d be a reliable guide to Campbell, if only he could get to him. But it was Tattersall’s to a tin can that the pandies would spot him, torture his message out of him, and be ready and waiting for Campbell when he advance. Well, thank God I wasn’t called on to decide…