I was telling you about two rare characters, through the eyes of Lt Harry Flashman. But first, we have left the good lieutenant in a precarious position in a Lahore palace… lets see what became of him before we continue.
~~ I’ve no head for heights, did I tell you? That yawning black void was dragging my mind down, willing to let me go, even as I clung for dear life with locked ankles and sweating fingers – I must drag myself up and over the bracket somehow, but even as I braced myself a voice sang out just overhead, and the toe of a boot appeared between the pillars only a yard above my upturned face. Thank God the balcony rail was a broad projecting slab which hid me from view as he shouted down – and only then did I remember blasted Romeo below, who must have been watching my frantic acrobatics….
“Ai, Nurla Bey – what of the feringhee?” cries the voice above – a rasping croak in Pushtu, and I could hear my muscles creaking with the awful strain as I waited to be announced.
“He came out a moment since, Gurdana Khan,” came the answer – Jesus, it sounded a mile down. “Then he went back within.”
He hadn’t seen me? Pondering it later – which you ain’t inclined to do while hanging supine under a balcony of murderers – I concluded that he must have been looking elsewhere or relieving himself when I made my leap for glory, and my robe being dark green, he couldn’t make me out in the deep shadow beneath the balcony. I embraced the bracket, blubbering silently, while Gurdana Khan swore by the Seven Lakes of Hell that I wasn’t in the room, so where the devil was I?
“Perchance he has the gift of invisibility,” calls up the wag in the court. “The English are great chemists.” Gurdana damned his eyes, and for no sane reason, I found myself thinking that this was the kind of crisis in which, Broadfoot had said, I might drop the magic word “Wisconsin” into the conversation. I didn’t care to interrupt, though, just then, while Gurdana stamped in fury and addressed his followers.
“Find him! Search every nook, every corner in the palace! Stay, though – he may have gone to the durbar room!”
“What – into the very presence of Jawaheer?” scoffs another.
“His best refuge, fool! Even thou wouldst not cut his throat in open durbar. Away, and search! Nurla, thou dirt – back to the gate!”
For a split second, as he shouted down, his sleeve came into view – and even in that poor light there was no mistaking that pattern. It was the tartan of the 79th, and Gurdana Khan was the Pathan officer I’d seen that afternoon – dear God, the Palace Guard were after me!
How I held on for those last muscle-cracking moments, with fiery cramps searing my arms, I can’t fathom, much less how I managed to struggle up astride the bracket. But I did, and sat gasping and shaking in the freezing dark. They were gone, and I must steel myself to reach out and up for a hold on the balcony pillars, and somehow find the strength to drag myself to safety. I knew it was death to try, but equally certain death to remain, so I drew myself into a crouch, feet on the bracket like some damned cathedral gargoyle, leaned out, and reached out slowly with one trembling hand, too terrified to make the snatch which had to be made…
A hideous face shot over the balustrade, glaring down at me, I squealed in terror, my foot slipped, I clawed wildly at thin air as I began to fall – and a hand like a vice clamped on my writs, almost wrenching my arm from the socket. For two bowel-chilling seconds I swung free, wailing, and then another hand seized my forearm, and I was dragged up and above the balustrade, collapsing in a quaking heap on the balcony, with Jassa’s ugly face peering into mine.
Flashman then aims to recover the only way he knows… and a way I’d also follow
~~ – by emptying my pint flask of brandy in about three great gulps.
To be continued….