A Walk in the Karakorum
Fandom: Fix Bay'nets!
Disclaimer: Fix Bay'nets! OR, The Regiment in the Hills was written by G. Manville Fenn, and was published in 1899. It is out of copyright. The characters' opinions reflect the worldview of the novel.
A Walk in the Karakorum
Daegaer wrote, @ 2003-09-17 23:05:00
Current mood: getting manlier
Gedge was very relieved at the change in Bracy. No longer was he subjected to quickly hidden scowls and then overly kind conversation as the officer mentally reproved himself for impatience. Bracy was now bright and cheerful, sure of being able to convince their captors to release them, and full of his old manly energy. It made him a much more pleasant companion at night. No longer did he stare into the darkness, awakening with darkly shadowed eyes, but slept well and healthily, greeting the mornings with fresh enthusiasm.
'Why, he's like his old self, before he was ever wounded,' thought Gedge, grinning at Bracy's boyish laughter as he recounted another halting, half-incomprehensible conversation with the chief or the doctor, 'I do hope he can keep it up.'
'Their doctor treats me very scornfully,' said Bracy cheerfully, 'and lessons me like a boy, correcting every word I say. He has not forgiven the snatching of his book, it seems. I'm happy to accept it, though – every one of his lessons makes it easier to understand their language.'
'What did you tell the chief about us, sir?' asked Gedge.
Bracy laughed again, saying, 'I'm not entirely sure, my lad. It's hard to explain oneself when one is relying on ancient poetry. I think they are clear that we are soldiers, and that we are from far away, and we must return to our regiment.'
'Will he let us go, sir?' cried Gedge in rising hope.
Bracy's face sobered. 'I don't know,' he said. 'Have you remembered any more of the journey here? Or do you think you could persuade your friend to take us against his father's will?'
'He might do it, sir,' answered Gedge. 'I think he likes me. We would need a guide, sir. If we were lost in these mountains we'd never see the fort again! And we'd be so long walking – we need horses, don't we, sir?'
'Why, Gedge,' smiled Bracy, 'all that riding you have been doing with Rustem is making you quite the cavalryman. You are right, my lad. It would take far too long on foot.' He looked thoughtfully at Gedge. 'We haven't that much time, Gedge. If we stay here much longer the weather will change, and we could find ourselves here until the passes clear next spring.'
'We'll get out of here before then, sir,' said Gedge, who steadfastly refused to believe that Bracy could not effect a desired goal.
'Sound out your friend, Gedge,' said Bracy. 'See if you can convince him to take us away – there must be some persuasion you can use on him. Like all boys he must find it pleasant to disobey his father at times. Do what you can.'
'Yes, sir,' said Gedge, willingly. 'I do wish they wouldn't keep us apart, sir!' he cried. 'How I hate to think of yer cooped up all day.'
'At least we are together at night,' said Bracy, 'and it is not so bad now that I can begin to make myself understood. Try your hardest with your friend, Gedge, but now, come. It's late and we should rest.' So saying he climbed into the bed, and Gedge quickly blew out the candle and followed.
* * *
As the next days passed Bracy was glad he had paid some attention in his schooling. The town's doctor laughed at him every time he could not reproduce the man's accent, and mocked his memory. Bracy found himself racking his brain for a word from Homer, and then the doctor would tell him the word over and over, changed either subtly or greatly. Often Bracy could only attempt to make his meaning clear by writing the word down, which allowed the doctor an opportunity to laugh at his spelling, or his writing. 'Ah, if only old Burgess could see me now!' thought Bracy ruefully, 'how he would laugh and say he always told me to pay more attention to the forms of the verb! I wish I could remember more of the later writers, but the poetry is what has stuck.' The doctor smacked at his hand with a stick as he misspelled yet another word. 'You are a natural teacher, sir,' said Bracy in a respectful tone, 'evil minded and hating of your pupils.'
None of the doctor's unpleasantness could, however, make Bracy's enthusiasm wane. He felt better than he had for months, the burden of illness and forced idleness finally lifting from him and youthful vigour re-entering his spirit. He spoke cheerfully and with determination to the chief who smiled and made slow answers, speaking as if to a little child. In the evenings, Gedge would look at him in great admiration, as if the speaking of a foreign language was a skill that was far beyond the reach of lower ranked men. He always took great care to commend Gedge's own attempts at the language.
'We are from England, sir,' he said, the talk having turned again to their origins, 'it is a far country, as I told you.'
'Where is this land?' the chief, whose name Bracy had learned was Straton, said. 'In Hind?'
'No, sir,' said Bracy, 'more far, not Hind.' He cursed his slow tongue as he saw the chief's son hide a smile.
'You were on the way from Hind, Rustem says,' said the chief.
Rustem nodded, speaking just a little too fast for Bracy to understand more than a few of his words.
'We were, sir,' said Bracy, 'we came to Hind from England. With a very great army,' he continued.
The chief did not seem perturbed by this, and asked a question. Bracy shook his head, helplessly. Gedge cleared his throat quietly.
'I think he's askin' what road we took, sir, what pass.' He coloured at Bracy's smile.
'By sea, sir,' Bracy said.
'There are not enough triremes to move a very great army,' the chief laughed. 'Engelstan can not be so far as you say.' He laid a hand on Rustem's shoulder. 'Rustem says he thought you were of our people.'
'Rustem thinks we're natives,' Bracy said in English, smiling, to Gedge.
'We're English, pard'ner,' Gedge said to the boy, who smiled brightly back at him.
'Greece is far,' said Bracy, 'Greece is more far from Hind. Why do you speak Greek?'
'We are Greek,' Rustem said, leaning forwards, a note of challenge in his voice. His father spoke sharply to him and he leaned back glowering at the floor.
'By what road did you come here?' Bracy asked the boy indulgently, remembering the chief's question to him.
Rustem spoke clearly and slowly, saying 'By Greece, and Asia, and the hollow of Syria, and Scythia and the Land Between the Rivers and Persia.' He laughed wildly, crying, 'We came with a very great army!'
Straton laid a hand on his shoulder again, restraining him. 'My son,' he said, 'speaks like a young man. But we are Greek, we are –' and Bracy could not follow him, for he spoke too quickly.
'What's he sayin', sir?' whispered Gedge, 'What was Rustem so excited over?'
Bracy ignored him, full of excitement himself. 'Whose army, sir?' he asked Straton.
'The king's,' answered Straton, 'all this land is his. From Greece to Hind. Perhaps even Engelstan,' he smiled.
'You are Alexander's men,' said Bracy in delight.
'What other king?' smiled the chief. 'You see, we are Greek.'
'They are one of Alexander's regiments, Gedge,' whispered Bracy in excitement.
'Oh,' said Gedge, feeling rather at sea. 'Who is Alexander?' He looked down at Bracy's astonished laugh. Rustem squeezed his arm in a friendly manner.
'Come now,' said Bracy, 'I did not mean to laugh at you, Gedge. He was a famous king and warrior of the past. He left many garrisons behind to keep his lands stable.'
'Like us at Gittah, sir?' asked Gedge.
'Indeed, Gedge,' said Bracy, smiling indulgently at the lad. 'Many years ago,' he continued, turning back to the chief.
'Many years,' Straton agreed. 'We are here many years. It is a good land.'
'Ah!' ejaculated Bracy, 'a man's home is a good place. But this is not our home, sir.'
The chief smiled at them and beckoned his son, rising from his seat. 'It is late,' he said. 'Come, Rustem.'
Bracy and Gedge sighed and looked at each other, accepting the setback as the servants bowed more politely than they had done for some days and indicated they should go to their room for the night.
* * *
The next day Gedge sat in the sun by the lake, watching Rustem and his friends wrestle and laugh. He had resisted their invitation to join in, feeling quite their superior in age and experience, although he now regretted it and wished there was some way he could convey that he would do them a favour and join in the play after all. They were having such fun, and he had after all no need to stand on his dignity as a sergeant here where no one but Bracy knew what the rank meant. 'And I do miss havin' a song,' thought Gedge, 'perhaps they'll teach me one of theirs, or learn one of ours off me.' The boys flung themselves down around him, talking breathlessly. The fair-haired boy poked Gedge roughly in the leg and spoke at length.
'Anacrites says, where is Englestan?' said Rustem.
'A long way off, pard'ners,' said Gedge, pointing vaguely to the north and west.
'In Persia?' said Rustem as the fair-haired boy spoke again.
'No, more far. I came on a ship – oh, what was the word yer father used? – on the sea, then on the railway when I got to India, and then walked a good spell, days and days, to get to the fort.'
'What is the railway?' asked Rustem.
Gedge felt he could not explain, with his few words of Rustem's language or Rustem's few words of his. He cast about him helplessly, his gaze falling on a cart making its way along in the distance.
'Like a cart – a cart, you understand? One of them things over there? – a cart that goes on a road made of – oh, I don't know how to say 'iron'! – made of what a sword is made of. Big, very big. My whole regiment – all the soldiers came on it.'
Rustem raised an eyebrow, and spoke to the others, who laughed and shouted. Anacrites threw a clump of grass at Gedge, chuckling.
'He says, you – do not say right,' said Rustem, wiping tears of laughter from his eyes.
'Hah! Well, I think he may have called me a liar, yer rotten heathen,' said Gedge, not speaking slowly, feeling that if they felt they could insult him without him understanding he might as well return the favour. The boys laughed at his expression, and most of them got up and wandered off. Anacrites winked broadly at Rustem, who threw an apple core at him, laughing cheerfully.
'Come, Gedge,' Rustem said, clambering to his feet and holding out a hand to help Gedge rise.
'It's too hot,' grumbled Gedge. 'Where're we goin'? I s'y, a grin's no answer.'
Rustem just laughed and picked up the remaining flask of wine and pulled him firmly along. Gedge wandered along in his wake, his hand firmly held in Rustem's grasp. He was led around the lake until they reached a spot where the water was narrower, and it was an easier swim to the island in the centre. Rustem pulled off his tunic and flung it to the ground.
'Swim,' he said, pointing to the island.
'It's too soon after we've eaten,' said Gedge, 'we'll get cramps.'
Rustem finished undressing and grabbed Gedge's arm, trying to pull him into the water. Gedge laughed, a little unwillingly, and gave in. 'Orl right, pard'ner,' he said. 'No need to soak my clothes. See? I'm takin' them off fer you.' He folded his clothes neatly and frowned at the mess Rustem had made of his. 'Yer shouldn't leave yer things like that. Back when I was a private, old Gee would've skinned me fer that sort of thing.' He neatened the crumpled clothing and bore without complaint Rustem's teasing. Then he let himself be pulled into the water. 'Ah!' he ejaculated, 'it's cold!'
Rustem laughed breathlessly and swam towards the island, still awkwardly carrying the flask of wine. Unburdened, Gedge swam strongly ahead of him. 'It's not jest you Greek lads what are good at this,' he thought, as he gave Rustem a smug smile and helped him out onto the shore. The boy shook himself and grabbed Gedge's hand once more, tugging him away from the shore and past the line of the trees. It was not as overgrown as Gedge had expected, the trees looked as if they at one time had been cared for and neat. 'It's like a park gone a bit wild,' thought Gedge as they went along. He saw little groves of fruit trees, and lawns with long grass above which butterflies flitted colourfully. Then Rustem led him through another line of trees and pointed, exclaiming cheerfully. Gedge saw a building with fluted columns that looked to him rather like some of the grand buildings he had seen built for British government offices and officials in India, with steps and a portico. Where those buildings were of white stone, however, this bore the bright colours of paint, picking out in cheerful tones the carvings of men and beasts.
'What's this, pard'ner?' asked Gedge.
Rustem waved his hands excitedly, pointing to the pictures and speaking fast. Gedge shook his head, crying, 'Slow down, lad! I can't understand yer!' Rustem laughed happily and pointed to the figures, saying words slowly.
'Apollo,' he said, pointing at a young man with a bow, then up at the sun, 'Apollo.' He pointed at a girl similarly equipped, saying, 'Artemis'. At an enthroned man, he cried, 'Zeus'.
Gedge looked on in confusion, then shook his head as Rustem pointed at a boy playing a flute and saying, 'Dionysos.'
'No,' said Gedge, 'I seen that fellow down south, that's Krishna. I suppose this must be some of yer heathen church stuff. I can't say I hold with this,' he said sternly. 'And yer got a statue of Buddha too, in yer house.'
'Yes,' said Rustem, 'Buddha is very good, very good.' He went on naming names, pointing finally at a figure of a young man on horseback wielding a spear, 'Sikander.' He took Gedge's hand again and drew him to the side of the building, showing him a shrine with two figures on it, standing either side of a pedestal. 'Sikander,' he said pointing, and more slowly, 'Alexandros.'
'Ah!' said Gedge, 'this Alexander fellow!'
'Yes, yes,' said Rustem, and pointed to the other figure, saying, 'Hefstaion.'
Gedge nodded politely, feeling like he should not perhaps be rude while standing in someone's church. 'I do hope this don't get back to the chaplain, though,' he thought, as Rustem chattered on, telling him something of apparently great import. 'What did this fellow do then?' he asked, pointing at the second figure, 'Hey now, you'll have to speak a bit slower if yer want me to understand anything!'
Rustem thought a moment then said, 'He is a soldier, he is Sikander's –', and finished with words Gedge could not follow.
'A soldier, hey?' said Gedge, 'Alexander's his orficer? Like me and Captain Bracy?'
Rustem gave him a sour face and made a non-committal sound. Gedge put a hand on his shoulder, saying, 'I'm wrong again, ain't I? Well, if they're not orficer and soldier, then are they friends?' Rustem looked at him in exasperation, as if he should have by this time have been familiar with all of the lad's tongue. 'Friends?' repeated Gedge, 'Like you and me, pard'ner?' Rustem gave him a brilliant smile and flung his arms round Gedge, embracing him in a firm grip. 'Yes,' he cried, 'like you and me.' Gedge laughed, saying, 'Easy, pard'ner! Why, yer a wild sort – here, now, in England we don't go round kissin' people so freely. Well, I s'pose it's yer way here.'
After a little while Rustem left off embracing Gedge and took the flask of wine and opened it, pouring a little of it over the shallow basin in the front of the shrine, saying something in a solemn voice. Then he turned to Gedge, grinning, and took a deep drink, passing it to him and indicating he should do likewise. Gedge obliged, passing it back. Rustem made a short and florid sounding speech and took another drink.
'Raisin' toasts, are you?' said Gedge, amused. 'Well, I'll not be left behind.' He raised the flask, saying 'The Queen, God bless her,' and swallowed deeply. After a few more rounds he was feeling quite cheerful and sleepy, and rather hoped that Rustem wasn't planning on swimming back for some time. 'I'd go 'round and 'round and never get nowhere,' he thought. Luckily, the wine had had the same effect on Rustem, who urged Gedge to lie down in the soft long grass, an idea Gedge felt was very much worth following.
'A little nap'll do us a world of good,' he said sleepily, stretching out. 'Here, Rustem, didn't you tire yourself out wrestling with the others?' He drifted off in the warm sunlight, the grass thick and sweet about him, muttering, 'Stop ticklin' me lad, I'll never get to sleep.'
When he awoke, the sun was slanting through the trees, and evening was upon them. Rustem slept quietly, his head pillowed on Gedge's shoulder, an arm cast across him. Gedge yawned hugely, and shook the boy.
'Time to wake up,' he said, 'look how late it's got.' Rustem was immediately awake and full of youthful vigour. He jumped up, and ran off into the trees, returning with handfuls of fruit that he shared between them.
'Dinner,' he said, laughing at Gedge's face. 'More in the house.'
They ate the fruit quickly, with all the hunger of a boy still growing and one not long past his growth, the juice making their hands and mouths sweet and sticky. Laughing, they threw the stones at each other and walked slowly back to the lakeside conversing as best they could and using their hands when words failed them. The water was just as cold as before, and Gedge shivered as he dressed on the far shore. He felt worried about what he should tell Bracy, not wanting to disappoint the young officer, and feeling shamed that he had drunk so much that he had had to sleep in the middle of the day.
'I'll jest tell him about the church on the island,' he thought, 'it's like the reports I had to give to old Gee, if I didn't want to get in trouble I had to be careful with what I said. Oh, but it does feel awful queer to not tell him everything!' However, he well knew that queer feeling or not, he would be hard put to it to explain everything, and so followed Rustem back to the house cheerfully enough through the gathering dusk.