I was giving you another account of President Ulysses S. Grant as observed by his own time subordinate, Sir Harry Flashman. This time it is when Grant, having demitted office, is on a tour of Europe and plainly bemused and rather put off by the rather royal reception he is getting. Now on the verge of leaving England for the continent, the former commander of the victorious Union forces in the American Civil War is even more apprehensive…. and seeks Flashman’s help.
“Price of fame, Mr. President.”
“Price of your aunt’s harmonium!” snaps he. “And it’ll be worse in Europe, I’ll be bound! Damnit, they embrace you, don’t they?” He glared at me, as though daring me to try. “Here, though – d’you speak French? I know you speak Siouxan, and I seem to recollect Lady Flashman extolling your linguistic accomplishments. Well, sir – do you or don’t you?”
I admitted I did, and he growled his satisfaction.
“Then you can do me a signal favour….. if you will. They tell me I must meet Marshal Macmahon in Paris, and he hasn’t a word of English – and my French you could write on the back of a postage stamp! Well, then,” says he, thrusting his beard at me, “will you stand up with me at the Invalids or the Tooleries or whatever the blazes it is, and play interpreter?” He hesitated, eying me hard while I digested this remarkable proposal, and cleared his throat before adding: “I’d value it, Flashman…. having a friendly face at my elbow ‘stead of some damned diplomatic in knee-britches.”
Ulysses S. Grant never called for help in his life, but just then I seemed to catch a glimpse, withing the masterful commander and veteran statesman, of the thin-skinned Scotch yokel from the Ohio tanyard uneasily adrift in an old so-superior world which he had liked to despise but couldn’t help feeling in awe of. No doubt Windsor and Buck House had been ordeal enough, and now the prospect of standing tongue-tied before the French President and a parcel of courtly supercilious Frogs had unmanned him to the point where he was prepared to regard me as a friendly face. Of course I agreed straight off, in my best toady-manly style; I’d never have dared say no to Grant at any time, and I wouldn’t have missed watching him and Macmahon in a state of mutual bewilderment for all the tea in China.
So there I was, a few weeks later, in a gilded salon of the Elysee, when Grant, wearing his most amiable expression, which would have frightened Geronimo, was presented to the great Marshal, a grizzled old hero with a leery look and eyebrows which matched his moustache for luxuriance – a sort of Grant with garlic, he was. They glowered at each other, and bowed, and glowered some more before shaking hands, with Sam plainly ready to leap away at the first hint of an embrace, after which silence fell, and I was just wondering if I should tell Macmahon that Grant was stricken speechless by the warmth of his welcome when Madame Macmahon, God bless her, inquired in English if we’d had a good crossing.
She was still a charmer at sixty, and Sam was so captivated in relief that he absolutely talked to her, which left old Macmahon and me standing like a blank file. Blowitz, who as usual was to the fore among the attendant dignitaries and crawlers, came promptly to the rescue, introducing me to the Marshal as an old companion-in-arms, sort of, both of us having served in Crimea. This seemed to cheer the old fellow up: ah, I was that Flashman of Balaclava, was I? And I’d done time in the Legion Etrangere also, Had I? Why, he was an old Algeria hand himself; we both had sand in our boots, n’est-ce pas, ho-ho! Well, this was formidable, to meet, in an English soldier of all people, a vielle moustache who had woken to the cry of “Au jus!” and marched to the sausage music. Blowitz said that wasn’t the half of it: le Colonel Flashman had been a distinguished ally of France in China; Montauban would have never got to Pekin without me. Macmahon was astonished; he had no notion. Well, there weren’t many of us left; decidedly we must become better acquainted.
The usual humbug, though gratifying, but pregnant of great effects, as the lady novelists put it. For early in the following May, long after Grant had gone home (having snarled his way round Europe and charmed the Italians by remarking that Venice would be a fine city if drained), and I was pursuing my placid way in London…..