Flashman on the March

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9780007197392: Flashman on the March

Celebrated Victorian bounder, cad, and lecher, Sir Harry Flashman, V.C., returns to play his (reluctant) part in the Abyssinian War of 1868 in the long-awaited twelfth installment of the critically acclaimed Flashman Papers. Many have marvelled at General Napier's daring 1868 expedition through the treacherous peaks and bottomless chasms of Abyssinia to rescue a small group of British citizens held captive by the mad tyrant Emperor Theodore. But the vital role of Sir Harry Flashman, V.C., in the success of this campaign has hitherto gone unrecorded. Flashman's undeserved reputation for heroism renders him the British Army's candidate of choice when it comes to skulking behind enemy lines in Ali Baba attire. After all, who but the great amorist could contemplate navigating a land populated by hostile tribes and the lovliest (and most savage) women in Africa, from leather-clad nymphs with a penchant for torture to de-ballocking Amazons and a voluptuous barbarian queen with a reputation for throwing disobliging guests to her pet lions?

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About the Author:

The author of the famous Flashman Papers and the Private McAuslan stories, George MacDonald Fraser has worked on newspapers in Britain and Canada. In addition to his novels he has also written numerous screenplays, most notably The Three Musketeers, The Four Musketeers, and the James Bond film, Octopussy.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

“Half a million in silver, did you say?”

“In Maria Theresa dollars. Worth a hundred thou’ in quids.” He held up a gleaming coin, broad as a crown, with the old girl double-chinned on one side and the Austrian arms on t’other. “Dam’ disinheritin’ old bitch, what? Mind, they say she was a plum in her youth, blonde and buxom, just your sort, Flashy—”

“Ne’er mind my sort. The cash must reach this place in Africa within four weeks? And the chap who was to have escorted it is laid up in Venice with yellow jack?”

“Or the clap, or the sailor’s itch, or heaven knows what.” He spun the coin, grinning foxy-like. “You’ve changed your mind, haven’t you? You’re game to do it yourself! Good old Flash!”

“Don’t rush your fences, Speed, my boy. When’s it due to be shipped out?”

“Wednesday. Lloyd packet to Alexandria. But with Sturgess comin’ all over yellow in Venice, that won’t do, and there ain’t another Alex boat for a fortnight—far too late, and the Embassy’ll run my guts up the flagpole, as though ’twas my fault, confound ’em—”

“Aye, it’s hell in the diplomatic. Well, tell you what, Speed—I’ll ride guard on your dollars to Alex for you, but I ain’t waiting till Wednesday. I want to be clear of this blasted town by dawn tomorrow, so you’d best drum up a steam-launch and crew, and get your precious treasure aboard tonight—where is it just now?”

“At the station, the Strada Ferrata—but dammit, Flash, a private charter’ll cost the moon—”

“You’ve got Embassy dibs, haven’t you? Then use ’em! The station ain’t spitting distance from the Klutsch mole, and if you get a move on you can have the gelt loaded by midnight. Heavens, man, steam craft and spaghetti sailors are ten a penny in Trieste! If you’re in such a sweat to get the dollars to Africa—”

“You may believe it! Let me see . . . quick run to Alex, then train to Cairo and on to Suez—no camel caravans across the desert these days, but you’ll need to hire nigger porters—”

“For which you’ll furnish me cash!”

He waved a hand. “Sturgess would’ve had to hire ’em, anyway. At Suez one of our Navy sloops’ll take you down the Red Sea—there are shoals of ’em, chasin’ the slavers, and I’ll give you an Embassy order. They’ll have you at Zoola—that’s the port for Abyssinia—by the middle of February, and it can’t take above a week to get the silver up-country to this place called Attegrat. That’s where General Napier will be.”

“Napier? Not Bob the Bughunter? What the blazes is he doing in Abyssinia? We haven’t got a station there.”

“We have by now, you may be sure!” He was laughing in disbelief. “D’you mean to tell me you haven’t heard? Why, he’s invadin’ the place! With an army from India! The silver is to help fund his campaign, don’t you see? Good God, Flashy, where have you been? Oh, I was forgettin’—Mexico. Dash it, don’t they have newspapers there?”

“Hold up, can’t you? Why is he invading?”

“To rescue the captives—our consul, envoys, missionaries! They’re held prisoner by this mad cannibal king, and he’s chainin’ ’em, and floggin’ ’em, and kickin’ up no end of a row! Theodore, his name is—and you mean to say you’ve not heard of him? I’ll be damned—why, there’s been uproar in Parliament, our gracious Queen writin’ letters, a penny or more on the income tax—it’s true! Now d’you see why this silver must reach Napier double quick—if it don’t, he’ll be adrift in the middle of nowhere with not a penny to his name, and your old chum Speedicut will be a human sacrifice at the openin’ of the new Foreign Office!”

“But why should Napier need Austrian silver? Hasn’t he got any sterling?”

“Abyssinian niggers won’t touch it, or anythin’ except Maria Theresas. Purest silver, you see, and Napier must have it for food and forage when he marches up-country to fight his war.”

“So it’s a war-chest? You never said a dam’ word about war last night.”

“You never gave me a chance, did you? Soon as I told you I was in Dickie’s meadow, with this damned fortune to be shipped and Sturgess in dock, what sympathy did dear old friend Flashy offer? The horse’s laugh, and wished me joy! All for England, home, and the beauteous Elspeth, you were . . . and now,” says he, with that old leery Speedicut look, “all of a sudden, you’re in the dooce of a hurry to oblige . . . What’s up, Flash?”

“Not a dam’ thing. I’m sick of Trieste and want away, that’s all!”

“And can’t wait a day? You and Hookey Walker!”

“Now, see here, Speed, d’ye want me to shift your blasted bullion, or don’t you? Well, I go tonight or not at all, and since this cash is so all-fired important to Napier, your Embassy funds can stand the row for my passage home, too, when the thing’s done! Well, what d’ye say?”

“That something is up, no error!” His eyes widened. “I say, the Austrian traps ain’t after you, are they—’cos if they were I daren’t assist your flight, silver or no silver! Dash it, I’m a diplomat—”

“Of course ’tain’t the traps! What sort of fellow d’ye think I am? Good God, ha’nt we been chums since boyhood?”

“Yes, and it’s ’cos I know what kind of chum you can be that I repeat ‘What’s up, Flash?’ ” He filled my glass and pushed it across. “Come up, old boy! This is old Speed, remember, and you can’t humbug him.”

Well, true enough, I couldn’t, and since you, dear reader, may be sharing his curiosity, I’ll tell you what I told him that night in the Hôtel Victoria—not the smartest pub in Trieste, but as a patriotic little minion of our Vienna Embassy, Speedicut was bound to put up there—and it should explain the somewhat cryptic exchanges with which I’ve begun this chapter of my memoirs. If they’ve seemed a mite bewildering you’ll see presently that they were the simplest way of setting out the preliminaries to my tale of the strangest campaign in the whole history of British arms—and that takes in some damned odd affairs, a few of which I’ve borne a reluctant hand in myself. But Abyssinia took the cake, currants and all. Never anything like it, and never will be again.

For me, the business began in the summer of ’67, on the day when that almighty idiot, the Emperor Maximilian of Mexico, strode out before a Juarista firing squad, unbuttoned his shirt cool as a trout, and cried “Viva Méjico! Viva la independencia! Shoot, soldiers, through the heart!” Which they did, with surprising accuracy for a platoon of dagoes, thereby depriving Mexico of its crowned head and Flashy of his employer and protector. I was an anxious spectator skulking in cover on a rooftop nearby, and when I saw Max take a header into the dust I knew that the time had come for me to slip my cable.

You see, I’d been his fairly loyal aide-de-camp in his recent futile struggle against Juarez’s republicans—not a post I’d taken from choice, but I’d been a deserter from the French Foreign Legion at the time. They were polluting Mexico with their presence in those days, supporting Max on behalf of his sponsor, that ghastly louse Louis Napoleon, and I’d been only too glad of the refuge Max had offered me—he’d been under the mistaken impression that I’d saved his life in an ambush at Texatl, poor ass, when in fact I’d been one of Jesús Montero’s gang of ambushers, but we needn’t go into that at the moment. What mattered was that Max had taken me on the strength, and had given the Legion peelers the right about when they’d come clamouring for my unhappy carcase.

Then the Frogs cleared out in March of ’67, leaving Max in the lurch with typical Gallic loyalty, but while that removed one menace to my well-being, there remained others from which Max could be no protection, quick or dead—like the Juaristas, who’d rather have strung up a royalist a.d.c. than eaten their dinners, or that persevering old bandolero Jesús Montero, who was bound to find out eventually that I didn’t know where Montezuma’s treasure was. Hell of a place, Mexico, and dam’ confused.

But all you need to know for the present is that after Max bought the bullet I’d have joined him in the dead-cart if it hadn’t been for the delectable Princess Agnes Salm-Salm, and the still happily ignorant Jesús. They’d been my associates in a botched attempt to rescue Max on the eve of his execution. We’d failed because (you’ll hardly credit this) the great clown had refused point-blank to escape because it didn’t sort with his imperial dignity, Austro-Hungarian royalty preferring to die rather than go over the wall. Well, hell mend ’em, I say, and if the House of Hapsburg goes to the knackers it won’t be my fault; I’ve done my unwilling best for them, ungrateful bastards.

At all events, darling Aggie and greasy Jesus had seen me safe to Vera Cruz, where she had devised the most capital scheme for getting me out of the country. Max having been brother to the Austrian Emperor Franz Josef, his death had caused a sensation in Vienna; they hadn’t done a dam’ thing useful to save his life, but they made up for it with his corpse, sending a warship to ferry it home, with a real live admiral and a great retinue of court reptiles. And since Aggie was the wife of a German princeling, a heroine of the royalist campaign, and handsome as Hebe, they were all over her when we went aboard the Novara frigate at Sacraficios. Admiral Tegethoff, a bluff old sport, all beard and belly, munched her knuckles and gave glad welcome even to the begrimed and ragged peon whom she presented as the hoch und wohlgeboren Oberst Sir Harry Flashman, former aide, champion, and all-round hero of the campaign and the ill-starred attempt to snatch his imperial majesty from the firing squad.

“The Emperor’s English right arm, gentlemen!” says Aggie, who was a great hand at the flashing-eyed flourish. “So his majesty called him. Who more fitting to guard his royal master and friend on his last journey home?”

Blessed if they could think of anyone fitter, and I was received with polite enthusiasm: the reptiles left off sneering at my beastly peasant appearance and clicked their heels, old Tegethoff stopped just short of embracing me, and I was aware of the awestruck admiration in the wide blue eyes of the enchanting blonde poppet whom he presented as his great-niece, Gertrude von und zum something-or-other. My worldly Aggie noticed it too, and observed afterwards, when we made our adieus at the ship’s rail, that if I looked like a scarecrow I was at least a most romantic one.

“The poor little idiot will doubtless break her foolish heart over you en voyage,” says she. “And afterwards wonder what she saw in the so dashing English rascal.”

“Jealous of her, princess?” says I, and she burst out laughing.

“Of her youth, perhaps—not of her infatuation.” She gave that slantendicular smile that had been driving me wild for months. “Well, not very much. But if I were sixteen again, like her, who knows? Adiós, dear Harry.” And being royally careless of propriety, she kissed me full on the lips before the startled squareheads—and for a delightful moment it was the kiss of the lover she’d never been, which I still count a real conquest. Pity she was so crazy about her husband, I remember thinking, as she waved an elegant hand from her carriage and was gone.

After that they towed Max’s coffin out to the ship in a barge and hoisted it inboard, and as the newly appointed escort to his cadaver I was bound to give Tegethoff and his entourage a squint at the deceased, so that they could be sure they’d got the right chap. It was no end of a business, for his Mexican courtiers had done him proud with no fewer than three coffins, one of rosewood, a second of zinc, and the third of cedar, with Max inside the last like one of those Russian dolls. He’d been embalmed, and I must say he looked in capital fettle, bar being a touch yellow and his hair starting to fall out. We screwed him in again, a chaplain said a prayer, and all that remained was to weigh anchor to thunderous salutes from various attendant warships, and for me to remind Tegethoff that a bath and a change of clobber would be in order.

I’ve never had any great love for the cabbage-chewers, having been given my bellyful by Bismarck and his gang in the Schleswig-Holstein affair,* and Tegethoff’s party included more than one of the crop-headed schlager-swingers whom I find especially detestable, but I’m bound to say that on that voyage, which lasted from late November ’67 to the middle of January, they couldn’t have been more amiable and hospitable—until the very morning we dropped anchor off Trieste, when Tegethoff discovered that I’d been giving his great-niece a few exercises they don’t usually teach in young ladies’ seminaries.

Aggie had been right, you see: the silly chit had gone nutty on me at first sight, and who’s to blame her? Stalwart Flashy all bronzed and war-weary in sombrero and whiskers might well flutter a maiden heart, and if at forty-five I was old enough to be her father, that never stopped an adoring innocent yet, and you may be sure it don’t stop me either. Puppy-fat and golden sausage curls ain’t my style as a rule, but combined with a creamy complexion, parted rosebud lips, and great forget-me-not eyes alight with idiotic worship, they have their attraction. For one thing they awoke blissful memories of Elspeth on that balmy evening when I first rattled her in the bushes by the Clyde. The resemblance was

* See Royal Flash. more than physical, for both were brainless, although my darling half-wit is not without a certain native cunning, but what made dear little Fräulein Gertrude specially irresistible was her truly unfathomable ignorance of the more interesting facts of life, and her touching faith in me as a guide and mentor.

Her attachment to me on the voyage was treated as something of a joke by Tegethoff’s people, who seemed to regard her as a child still, more fool they, and since her duenna was usually too sea-sick to interfere, we were together a good deal. She was the most artless prattler, and was soon confiding her girlish secrets, dreams, and fears; I learned that her doting great-uncle had brought her on the cruise as a betrothal present, and that on her return to Vienna she was to be married to a most aristocratic swell, a graf no less, whom she had never seen and who was on the brink of the grave, being all of thirty years old.

“It is such an honour,” sighs she, “and my duty, Mama says, but how am I to be worthy of it? I know nothing of how to be a wife, much less a great lady. I am too young, and foolish, and . . . and little! He is a great man, a cousin to the Emperor, and I am only a lesser person! How do I know how to please him, or what it is that men like, and who is to tell me?” Yearning, dammit, drowning me in her blue limpid pools, with her fat young juggs heaving like blancmange. Strip off, lie back, and enjoy it, would have been the soundest advice, but I patted her hand, smiled paternally, and said she mustn’t worry her pretty little head, her graf was sure to like her.

“Oh, so easy to say!” cries she. “But if he should not? How to win his affection?” She rounded on me eagerly. “If it were you”—and from her soulful flutter she plainly wished it was, sensible girl—“if it were you, how could I best win your heart? How make you . . . oh, admire me, and honour me, and . . . and love me! What would delight you most that I could do?”

You may talk about sitting birds, but where a lesser man might have taken swift advantage of that guileless purity, I’m proud to say that I did not. She might be the answer to a lecher’s prayer, but I knew it would take delicate management and patience before we could have her setting to partners in the Calcutta Quadrille. So I went gently to work, indulgent uncle in the first week, brotherly arm about her shou...

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