‘… some damned odd fellows in the earlies.’: Three examples VII

Flashman hasn’t got over the great astonishment of coming to know that the tartan-wearing Pathan, known as Gurdana Khan, is actually an American national but there is a further surprise waiting for him….

~~ After the events of the night, I doubted if Lahore could hold any further surprises – but d’you know, what followed was perhaps the most astonishing encounter between two men I ever saw – and I was at Appomatox, remember, and saw Bismarck and Gully face to face with the mauleys, and held the shotgun when Hickok confronted Wesley Hardin. But what took place in Gardner’s room laid over any of them.

We waited in silence until the jemadar knocked, and Jassa slid in, shifty as always. The moment his eye fell on the grim tartan figure he started as though he’d trod on hot coals, but then he recovered and looked inquiringly at me while Gardner viewed him almost in admiration.

“Not bad, Josiah,” says he. “You may have the guiltiest conscience east of Suez, but by God you’ve sure got the brazenest forehead to go with it. I never ha’ known you, clean shaven.” His voice hardened to a bark. “Now then – what’s the game? Speak up, jildi.”

“None o’ your goddam’ business!” snaps Jassa. “I’m a political agent in British service – ask him if you don’t believe me! And that puts me outside your touch, Alick Gardner! So now!”

Said in Pushtu, I’d have held it a good answer – reckless, from what I’d seen of Gardner, but about what you’d expect from a Khyberie toughie. But it was said in English – with an accent even more American than Gardner’s own! I couldn’t credit my ears – one bloody Yankee promenading about in Afghan fig was bad enough – but two? And the second one my own orderly, courtesy of Broadfoot …. and if I sat open-mouthed, d’you wonder? Gardner exploded.

“British political, my eye! Why, you crooked Quaker, you, if you are working for Broadfoot it must mean that he doesn’t know who you are! And he doesn’t, I’ll bet! No, because you’re before his time, Josiah – you skipped out of Kabul before the British arrived, and wise you were! Sekundar Burnes knew you, though – for the double-dealing rascal you are! Pollock knows you, too – he ran you out of Burma, didn’t he? Damn me if there’s a town between Rangoon and Basra that you haven’t left a shirt in! So, let’s have it – what’s your lay this time?”

“I don’t answer to you,” says Jassa. “Mr Flashman, if you care for this, I don’t. You know I’m Major Broadfoot’s agent -“

“Hold your tongue or I’ll have it out,” roars Gardner. “Outside my touch, are you? We’ll see. You know this man as Jassa,” says he to me. “Well, let me perform the honours by presenting Dr Josiah Harlan of Philadelphia, former packet-rat, impostor, coiner, spy, traitor, revolutionary, and expert in every rascality he can think of – and can’t he think, just? No common blackguard, mind you – Prince of Ghor, once, weren’t you, Josiah, and unfrocked governor of Gujerat, to say nothing of being a pretender (it’s the truth, Flashman) to the throne of Afghanistan, no less! You know what they call this beauty up in the high hills? The Man Who Would Be King!” He came forward, thumbs in belt, and stuck his jaw in Jassa’s face. “Well, you have one minute to tell me what you would be in Lahore, doctor! And don’t say you’re an orderly, pure and simple, because you’ve never been either!”

Jassa didn’t move a muscle of his ugly, pock-marked face, but turned to me with a little inclination of his head. “Leaving out the insults, part of what he says is true. I was Prince of Ghor – but Colonel Gardner’s memory is at fault. He hasn’t told you that lord Amherst personally appointed me surgeon to His Britannic Majesty’s forces in the Burmese campaign -“

Assistant surgeon, stealing spirits in an artillery field hospital!” scoffs Gardner.

” – or that I held high military command and the governorship of three districts under his late majesty, Raja Runjeet Singh -“

“Who kicked you out for counterfeiting, you damned scamp! Go ahead, tell him how you were ambassador to Dost Mohammad, and tried to start a revolution in Afghanistan, and sold him out more times than he could count! Tell him how you suborned Muhammed Khan to betray Peshawar to the Sikhs! Tell him how you lined your pockets on the Kunduz expedition, and cheated Reffi Bey, and had the gall to plant the Stars and Stripes on the Indian Caucasus, damn your impudence!” He paused for breath while Jassa stood as cool as a trout.

To be continued….

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