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, @ 2004-08-02 15:48:00
When last we saw the lads, they were snowed into a distant village, giving thanks they had survived the arduous trip back from the valley of dragons, weak with hunger and cold.
The weather grew colder and colder, and apart from brief excursions to cut more wood for the fire, the whole village stayed indoors as much as possible. The young men found there was little to do, for although their presence seemed accepted, the other men of the village did not seem to wish to speak to them unless necessary, and the wife and daughters of the headman would not speak to them at all, merely smiling shyly and veiling themselves if spoken to. Despite the cold and the boredom, Gedge felt quite happy and would chat away for hours to Bracy and Rustem. He taught Rustem some songs, and filled the house with his gay laughter to hear his friend sing lustily in a tongue he knew so little of. Rustem for his part taught Gedge some of the songs of his people, laughing that English music was too barbarous to sing much of. Bracy cried mercy, saying he could not sing at all, and would provide instead an audience for their concerts. Gedge was too kind hearted to press him on the matter, thinking that the young officer was shy to raise his voice in song before others. 'If I could get him off with no one else around, I'd soon have him singing out nice and loud,' he thought, fondly looking at Bracy as he bowed his head over his rifle, cleaning it thoroughly. Bracy looked up at him as if he had heard his name called, smiled briefly and bent over his work once more.
Soon, however, there were no more tears in their clothing to be darned, or buckles on their equipment to be mended or replaced, Bracy's sword had been polished and sharpened more often than it needed, and their rifles and Bracy's revolver had been stripped and cleaned so many times that even the most meticulous of men would have had to admit nothing more needed to be done to them. Sleeping became an almost irresistible way to pass the time, despite the fact that their youthful vigour would have despised such sloth under any other circumstances. Gedge felt more than content to curl up cosily under the blankets at a disgracefully early hour and wake with Bracy in his arms, thinking the only way he could be more content would be if he could find a way to ask Rustem to leave them alone together once again. He supposed it would not be fair on his young friend, to be excluded from the chance to sleep the hours away in comfort. Certainly Bracy seemed to think so, always politely asking both of them if they thought they should turn in and leave the headman and his family in peace. On seeing this Gedge felt quite ashamed to be less charitable and, taking himself firmly in hand, resolved to include Rustem in his day as much as possible, and took it on himself to give his young friend English lessons once more while the headman's family looked on with some amusement.
'People will take you for a Londoner soon enough,' he said cheerily, pleased with Rustem's quick mind.
'I know you think I sound very barbarous in your tongue,' said Rustem, smiling back at him. 'You are much better at Greek than I am at English.'
'If you had to speak English all the time, you would soon find yourself improving, just as we did in Greek,' said Bracy, who seemed to derive some pleasure from watching Gedge instruct the boy.
'I know I ain't as good as Mr Bracy,' said Gedge, adding with some pride in his officer's accomplishments, 'he did it at school, he said.'
'Ah,' said Rustem, with a solemn and sly expression, 'that must be why he spoke it so peculiarly at first. You speak it in a much more natural manner, Gedge.'
Gedge flushed, protesting that he was sure that Bracy was by far his superior in using a foreign tongue, feeling his embarrassment fade only when he saw that Bracy laughed at Rustem's joke. Bracy said something he could not understand at all, but saw that it must have been amusing, for Rustem laughed helplessly.
'Alas,' said Bracy in a voice of deep sadness that only provoked Rustem to more laughter, 'I will have to tell my old teachers that they failed me in their lessons, and have made me a target for mockery.'
It was with some relief that the young men found that on the first clear day the men of the village gathered together for a hunt to supplement the stores of food for the winter. Bracy, Gedge and Rustem joined most eagerly in this, although some of the villagers looked at them askance as if wondering what they would do.
'We must do our best to bring down some game,' said Bracy, 'I fear we are a burden on our host and I do not like to think of his family going hungry because of us.'
'Don't you worry, sir,' said Gedge, 'if there's something to be shot out here, between the three of us we'll bring it down.'
'If only I had a gun!' cried Rustem, who had been given a long spear by the headman. 'I would show these barbarians how much game a gentleman can take down!'
'They have been most kind to us,' admonished Bracy. 'I would not despise them for not having the wealth of your people; do not many of your father's men also carry spears, Rustem?'
The boy looked at him at first angrily, then catching Gedge's eye smiled gaily at Bracy and said, though it cost him some blushes, 'Yes, you are right, Bracy. I should remember my duties to them as their guest. I will be more courteous, do not worry.'
'Good lad,' said Bracy absently, fixing his eyes on the valley sides as the hunting party left the village, talking and laughing amongst themselves. 'I would have expected no less from you. How still everything is!'
'Least we know things ain't quiet 'cos there's a monster about,' said Gedge cheerfully. He was feeling very gay with the chance to stretch his legs and get some fresh air, and was sure that the hunt would do Bracy a great deal of good. He looked about him as they climbed higher, admiring the whiteness of the snow and the crisp clarity of the air. 'The snow weren't never so clean when I was young,' he said.
'Was it not, Grandfather?' laughed Rustem. 'I am astonished you can remember such far-off days.'
'Cheek,' said Gedge peaceably, noting how Bracy hid his smile. 'London's a big city, pard'ner, gets a bit grubby. It ain't like this at all.' He was overcome for a moment with longing for the sights and sounds of his childhood, then shook himself, thinking, 'I'd rather be here now with Mr Bracy - with Edmund - than there with a good, well-paid position.' So thinking he laid a hand on Bracy's shoulder and received a bright smile in return.
In their heavy clothes they were soon warm right through with the exertions of their climb, although as they came out to more exposed parts of the hillsides they and the other men drew scarves tight round their faces to thwart the icy winds that attempted to chill them. None of the men spoke now, saving their strength for the climb and looking about them keenly. At last one of the villagers exclaimed softly and pointed further ahead and upwards. At first Gedge could see nothing, but then, as Rustem also pointed a patch of white of a slightly different shade resolved itself into two of the goats native to the mountains. The hunting party began to work its way closer to their prey.
'You've got good sharp eyes,' said Gedge to Rustem, 'I was looking for them to have brown coats.'
'They change in the winter, to hide themselves in the snow,' said Rustem, looking pleased at the praise.
'That's clever,' said Gedge, wondering if he were being teased, 'but it won't do them no good. I s'y, sir, don't you think we're within range now?'
'Yes, indeed,' said Bracy, 'Although it is not the easiest of shots.'
'Let's take 'em down from here,' said Gedge eagerly, 'that'll show we're useful and doing our bit for the village.' He raised his already loaded rifle to his shoulder and sighted carefully. One of the villagers behind him spoke quietly but angrily, putting a heavy hand on Gedge's shoulder.
'He says you will do nothing but chase them away,' said Rustem.
'You tell our friend that Gedge will do no such thing,' said Bracy, 'I do not think there is a finer shot in our regiment.'
Rustem spoke slowly and haltingly to the villager, and Gedge sighted again, feeling a great warmth within him at Bracy's words, and being determined that he should succeed and prove them true. 'You be ready too, sir,' he said quietly, all his attention on his target, 'I'm taking the one on the right.' With a crack! the sound of his shot resounded in the freezing air, and the larger of the goats leapt up and then fell lifeless back on its ledge. Almost at the same time a second rifle shot echoed loudly, and the other goat, startled into presenting a clear target, went down cleanly. 'Oh, well done, sir!' laughed Gedge as the villagers exclaimed in surprise.
'It is I who must say that to you,' said Bracy, 'You are a very fine shot, Gedge.'
Light at heart, Gedge followed the villagers up the slope and watched as they brought down the goats, exclaiming in pleased tones at him. The carcasses were carried by two of the younger villagers, and the hunt continued. By the end of the day another three goats had been brought down, one of them by Gedge. Some birds had also been killed by the sharp-eyed village boys who spied where they sat and took them neatly with flung stones. It was a well-satisfied group of hunters who returned to the village with their game, and Gedge felt himself much appreciated although he could understand only a few words of what was said to him without Rustem's aid. The men gathered in the headman's house and recounted Gedge's skill, making him blush when Rustem translated their words. He gladly acquiesced to the request that some of his game should be shared with other households of the village and found that the rough drink the men favoured was pressed upon him as he ate. He was full and satisfied by the time they left, and thinking longingly of his bed.
'We had a cold day,' said Rustem, looking at Gedge from the corner of his eye. 'I have a mind to sleep here by the fire.'
Gedge looked at him with great happiness and turned to Bracy who kept his eyes steadily on the flames.
'Rustem has a good idea,' said Bracy in a queer tone of voice. 'I think I will do likewise.' He turned to Gedge and continued softly, 'I feel as if I were quite frozen through.'
Gedge put an understanding smile on his face. 'Here I am, getting puffed up with these folks' praise and not even seeing my poor orficer's cold,' he thought, telling himself moreover that he was glad for Bracy to want to sleep in the main room and get properly warm. 'Well, I'll keep the pair of you company, then,' he said in what he hoped was a gay tone.
'I will get the blankets,' said Rustem drily, and did so at once. He cast a look at both of them, then rolled himself up in his blanket and seemed asleep at once. Bracy followed suit, and Gedge found himself drifting off to sleep with the queerest sense that the young officer was waiting for him to do so.
* * *
On waking the next morning, Bracy lay silent and still, gazing up at the ceiling in the dim light. Beside him Gedge stirred, snuggling close against his side. Bracy steeled himself not to put an arm about the young sergeant, feeling he had led the lad astray quite enough already. 'How my brother officers would despise me, taking advantage of a man under me,' he thought sorrowfully. 'Only a brute would act so, turning a man's honest love to selfish ends. I must put a rein on my actions and treat him more distantly. He will come to see it is for his own good, that he cannot continue being familiar in this manner.' So thinking, he planned a course of actions whereby he would be fair and considerate of Gedge while not contravening the demands of their respective ranks. Much cheered by this resolution to complete propriety he felt equal to responding warmly when Gedge opened his eyes and peered sleepily at him.
'Morning, sir,' whispered Gedge, hiding a yawn.
'Good morning,' said Bracy kindly, as quietly as he could. 'Is Rustem still asleep?'
Gedge looked over his shoulder to where only a little of Rustem's chestnut hair showed from the tightly-wrapped blankets, and turned back, smiling. 'Yes, sir. Fast asleep - we don't need to disturb him, do we?'
'I suppose not, it is still early,' said Bracy. Gedge beamed happily, then leaned over him pressing his lips to Bracy's own. Bracy found, to his horror, his arms going about Gedge and holding him close for an instant, then as his resolution came strongly into his mind he shoved the lad off strongly. Gedge rolled hard against Rustem and made a sound as if he had been winded, his eyes wide in surprise.
'Edmund?' he said, too loudly, and Rustem made a sleepy noise of protest.
'Do not be familiar, sir,' said Bracy, rather more coldly than he had intended, and turned over. 'Go back to sleep.'
'Edm -- Mr Bracy?' said Gedge very quietly, and laid a hand on Bracy's shoulder. 'Sir?'
Bracy shook him off and burrowed more deeply into his blanket. He screwed his eyes shut at the memory of Gedge's face when he had pushed him, and did not respond to Gedge's entreaties to speak with him. Behind him, he heard Gedge stand, and felt the young sergeant was looking down at him silently. Abruptly, Gedge walked away. Bracy heard the outer door open and shut, and then everything was as silent as before. Telling himself uneasily that he had only done what was needful, he allowed sleep to claim him once more. When he awoke it seemed as if only a moment had passed, but the room was light and quiet sounds of industry came from one corner. Raising his head, he saw his host's daughters making the bread for the day. He looked to the side and saw he was alone, both Gedge and Rustem having vanished. Feeling that he should seek out Gedge to make it clear that his earlier harshness had had a purpose, Bracy stood, folding his blanket neatly. At once the youngest of the headman's daughters veiled herself and brought him bread and he found himself constrained by politeness to sit and break his fast, the girls bringing him more bread than he wished. It was with some relief that he saw the door open and Rustem come in, stamping snow from his boots.
'Good morning, Rustem,' said Bracy. 'Gedge is not with you?'
'No,' said Rustem shortly, and spoke some words in the villagers' tongue. The girls at once began to pile up bread for him.
'I was hoping to speak with him,' said Bracy, 'where is he?' Rustem did not answer him, but instead said another word to the girls, one of whom went to a basket by the wall and drew forth a handful of dried fruit, handing it and the bread to him carefully. 'Is something wrong?' asked Bracy as Rustem looked at him darkly and turned once more to the door.
'I would not cause him such pain,' said Rustem, his hand on the latch. He scowled at Bracy who felt certain suddenly that Gedge was in trouble. The boy looked at his pale face a moment longer, then sighed. 'He is in the stables,' said Rustem, and put the food in Bracy's hands. 'He has not eaten.' He turned about again and sat heavily by the fire saying in a disgusted voice, 'Go, go.'
Unsure as to what he would find, Bracy went out the door and around to the stables - for the headman, unlike many other of the villagers had a house large enough to provide separate accommodation for his animals - and slipped in quietly. His eyes quickly adjusted to the gloom and he could see the headman's donkeys and goats, who had been crowded together to make room for the two horses. Only the headman's own horse had not been supplanted, and kept, lordly-like, its own stall. Gedge was leaning against one wall, a curry-brush in his hand, staring at the animals as if they were of great interest.
'I told yer, I don't want no breakfast,' said Gedge in Greek, and Bracy was must disheartened by the sadness in his tone.
'No breakfast?' said Bracy jovially, 'that is most unlike you, Gedge, are you not well?'
Gedge straightened up immediately. 'Sir,' he said. 'I thought it was Rustem, sir. Sorry, sir.'
'He told me you hadn't eaten,' said Bracy. 'Come now, do have something. What have you been doing out here? I was surprised to find you gone.'
'Didn't want to be a bother to you, sir,' said Gedge smartly. 'I thought as I could make myself useful, so I mucked out and brushed the horses.'
'Such hard work so early,' said Bracy, smiling and wishing Gedge would look less like he was on parade, 'You put the rest of us to shame. Look, there is fruit as well as bread.' He held the food out and Gedge seemed to relent, coming forward.
'Will you have some, sir?' asked Gedge.
Starting to say that he had already eaten, Bracy looked at the lad's face and said instead, 'I'd be very glad to share with you.' Gedge looked very tired and downcast, but Bracy felt he could not shame the young sergeant by saying anything. They ate in silence, Gedge thanking him politely when the food was gone. After a silence that lasted some minutes Gedge cleared his throat.
'I'll get back to work, sir, if you don't mind.'
'No, no, come back into the heat,' said Bracy.
'I wouldn't want to be an annoyance to you, sir,' said Gedge crisply.
'You wouldn't be,' said Bracy in astonishment, then more slowly, 'I'm not annoyed with you, Gedge, I'm annoyed with myself.'
Gedge looked at him with a more open expression, saying, 'Yer too hard on yerself, always.' He shyly embraced the officer, raising a hand to touch his cheek. With an oath Bracy stepped back, and winced as Gedge's face closed up again.
'Oh, Gedge,' said Bracy contritely, 'I did not mean to distress you.'
'No. 'Course not, sir,' said Gedge.
'You're in my charge,' said Bracy pleadingly. 'I'm responsible for you, I have to take proper care of you, don't you see?' He felt most uneasy about the way in which Gedge stood silently watching him, and continued, 'You must see that I cannot use my position against you. I am responsible for both your physical and moral welfare and must refrain from setting you a bad example.'
Gedge sighed heavily and looked at him in a way that seemed to express both fondness and what, if Bracy had not known Gedge to be an exemplary and respectful well-trained soldier, he would have thought was exasperation.
'Yer goin' to worry yersself into an early grave,' said Gedge, and laid a hand upon Bracy's arm, taking his hand firmly in his own. 'You don't have to take care of me, we have to take care of each other, and of Rustem. Only way we'll all get back home. You've got us this far and I don't doubt you'll get us home too, so I don't want to hear you sayin' yer a bad example, not in soldiering, not,' and he looked almost angrily into Bracy's eyes, 'in anything. Did you think I was jest following orders?'
'But the army won't allow --,' started Bracy.
'We ain't in the fort, and we've all the winter to get through, and I don't regret none of it,' said Gedge with determination, and threw his arms about Bracy. 'D'you?'
Bracy tried to hold himself stiffly for a little, then, as Gedge merely held on with greater determination, returned the embrace feeling a sensation of safety and great relief as if he had been pulled back from a precipice. He felt great happiness as Gedge kissed him eagerly. 'Bill,' he said, 'Bill, you must think me a fool. I don't seem to be able to help it.'
Gedge laughed quietly, saying, 'Let's go get warm, and you let me do the worryin' from now on, Edmund.'
He led Bracy by the hand from the stables, and they stopped dead to see Rustem waiting for them outside. The boy looked at them appraisingly and then, seeing their smiles, bent quickly and rolled a large ball of snow between his hands, flinging it with deadly accuracy so that it exploded in a flurry all over Gedge.
'You villain!' cried Gedge in mock fury as Bracy laughed at his expression, making a snowball of his own and showing that the aim of a British fusilier was as good as any hill boy's. Rustem laughed and danced backwards through the snow, flinging his missiles at both Gedge and Bracy, who pursued him with vigour, and upon catching him attempted to stuff his tunic full of snow until he wriggled from their grasp and led them in pursuit of him once again. Left by themselves at first, the boys and young men of the village joined in little by little until the whole village rang with laughter and cries of outrage as snowballs found their targets and the old men and women shook their heads from the doorways over the energy and foolishness of young men.