A gift for languages is the greatest boon that can be conferred on someone. But those blessed with it should be careful how they use the gift, or rather display their skills, as this cautionary episode from the first-ever installment of the Flashman Papers will demonstrate.
But besides the cautionary aspect, it is again a marvellous piece of writing, replete with the irreverent views of Flashman on illustrious personages and ancient customs alike. Enjoy…..
~~ and with my heart thumping against my ribs I heard a rich, strong voice announce:
“His Grace the Duke of Wellington. Mr Flashman.”
It was a large, magnificently furnished drawing-room, with a carpet stretching away between mirrored walls and a huge chandelier overhead. There were a few people at the other end, two men standing near the fireplace, a girl sitting on the couch, with an older woman standing behind, and I think another man and a couple of women near by. We walked forward towards them, the Duke a little in advance, and he stopped short of the couch and bowed.
“Your Majesty,” says he, “may I have the honour to present Mr Flashman.”
And only then did I realise who the girl was. We are accustomed to think of her as the old queen, but she was just a child then, rather plump, and pretty enough beneath the neck. Her eyes were large and popped a little, and her teeth stuck out too much, but she smiled and murmured in reply – by this time I was bowing my backside off, naturally.
When I straightened up she was looking at me, and Wellington was reciting briskly about Kabul and Jallalabad – “distinguished defence” , “Mr Flashman’s notable behaviour” are the only phrases that stay in mind. When he stopped she inclined her head at him, and then said to me: “You are the first we have seen of those who served so bravely in Afghanistan, Mr Flashman. It is really a great joy to see you returned safe and well. We have heard the most glowing reports of your gallantry, and it is most gratifying to be able to express our thanks and admiration for such brave and loyal service.”
Well, she couldn’t have said fairer than that I suppose, even if she did recite it like a parrot. I just made a rumbling sound in my throat and ducked my head again. She had a thick, oddly-accented voice, and came down heavy on her words now and then, nodding as she did so.
“Are you entirely recovered from your wounds?” she asked.
“Very well, thank’ee, your majesty,” says I.
“You are exceedingly brown,” says one of the men, and the heavy German accent startled me. I’d noticed him of the tail of my eye, leaning against the mantel, with one leg crossed over the other. So this is Prince Albert, I thought; what hellish-looking whiskers.
“You must be brown as an Aff-ghan,” says he, and they laughed politely.
I told him I had passed for one, and he opened his eyes and said did I speak the language, and would I say something in it. So without thinking I said the first words that came into my head: “Hamare ghali aana, achcha din,” which is what the harlots chant at passers-by, and means “Good day, come into our street.” He seemed very interested, but the man beside him stiffened and stared hard at me.
“What does it mean, Mr Flashman?” says the Queen.
“It is a Hindu greeting, marm,” says the Duke, and my guts turned over as I recalled he had served in India.
“Why, of course,” says she, “we are quite an Indian gathering, with Mr Macaulay here.” The name meant nothing to me then; he was looking at me damned hard, though, with his pretty little mouth set hard. I later learned that he had spent several years in government out there, so my fat-headed remark had not been lost on him, either.
And thats all……