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, @ 2004-08-03 17:57:00
Current mood: manly!
The winter dragged on, by turns howling blizzards and calm silent days, until Gedge felt he had quite forgotten what any other season was like. The days were broken at midwinter with a festival at which the villagers brought out some treasures stored against the day; wine, meats and fruits that preserved the memory of summer. Gedge felt most annoyed with himself that he had not thought to find a way to make gifts for his friends, especially when Rustem presented both of the British soldiers with plaited straps he had made from scraps of leather begged from their host.
'It is a very poor gift,' said Rustem, 'but perhaps may prove useful. I did not want to let the day pass without marking it.'
Gedge embraced his young friend, and told himself that should he ever return to Gittah Fort and the 404th he would buy fine gifts for his friend and somehow ensure they were delivered. 'I wish I had some Christmas present for you,' he said morosely to Bracy that night, when at last people were retiring in exhaustion.
Bracy just smiled and drew him close, saying, 'You kept us all going when I thought there was no hope. That's present enough, Bill.'
'I'd still like to be able to give you so much as a screw of tobacco,' grumbled Gedge, but let Bracy coax him into better humour, falling asleep at last happily.
When the first signs of spring appeared it felt to Gedge as if he were properly awake for the first time in months and he delighted in the warmer breezes and the withdrawal of the winter, which had been harsh and long. Eagerly, he, Bracy and Rustem joined in any work that needed to be undertaken outside, feeling as if they had been released from imprisonment and glorying in the feel of fresh air upon themselves. Although they did not speak of it much even amongst themselves, as if fearing that to do so would put off the day, they looked in anticipation for the opening of the roads when they could continue with their journey. Day by day, it seemed, the snows retreated, and fresh green grass was soon covering the valley floor to the delight of the animals now released from their winter housing. Gedge watched the villagers' goats being driven up the hillside by some small boys, and thought happily that soon he and his friends would also leave.
At last, some time after Rustem had been chafing to go and saying that he knew the roads were open, the headman most politely came to them and said that their way was clear. Bracy bowed and thanked him, saying, 'Sir, we will send payment back to you, for we know our presence put a not inconsiderable strain upon your family. We are very grateful for your hospitality.' Rustem conveyed these words to the headman, who smiled and shook his head.
'He says it is not a matter requiring payment,' said Rustem, 'but I think it would be polite to send him some present.' The headman spoke again and left them, and Rustem laughed a little. 'He says he will guide us to my home himself. Perhaps he fears my father will say he kept me here so long from malice, and wishes to explain.' Bracy nodded, looking troubled at such a thought.
Some time was spent in packing supplies for their trip, their host's wife and daughters wrapping what seemed to be a large amount of their remaining stores of food carefully and presenting it to them. 'I hope we are not leaving these ladies hungry,' said Bracy in some worry on the morning they were about to leave. 'It will be some time before they can replenish their stores.'
'Oh, my father will see they are repaid,' said Rustem, frowning at the horse he was borrowing. 'Have you ever seen a nag uglier than this? I think its mother must have been a goat.' He strapped a portion of their supplies carefully behind the saddle and shook his head over the quality of the tack.
At last all was ready, and the little party started on its journey back to Rustem's valley. The village headman took the lead, his horse keeping an easy pace as it went down the trail. Gedge looked about him with pleasure, seeing little flowers by the side of the path and listening happily to the birds. He caught Bracy watching him and smiled broadly. 'It's good to be back on the road, ain't it, sir?' he said.
'Yes, indeed,' said Bracy, who seemed all at once to be as gay as Gedge had ever seen him, 'this is a fine country, Gedge, and I'm happy you're here with me.' He sat straighter and seemed quite carefree. 'Yes,' he repeated, 'a fine country and fine company. A man could wish for nothing better.'
Gedge pointed up the trail. 'Race you to that pink rock,' he said. 'Last one there makes dinner.'
'What pink rock?' asked Bracy, squinting ahead. 'Gedge! Come back here!' Grinning helplessly, he spurred his horse after Gedge's, the sound of the young sergeant's taunting laughter still hanging in the air.
* * *
The first several days of their journey were unremarkable, yet Gedge felt as if they were the best he had ever experienced. All their little party were in good spirits with the bright weather and beauties of the mountains, but Bracy more so than any. He laughed at any jokes Gedge or Rustem might tell, pointed out sights and creatures he found of interest and, although he still protested that he could not sing, hummed cheerfully along when Gedge or Rustem lifted their voices in song. Looking at his officer in this gay mood Gedge felt for the first time in many months that Bracy was only a little older than he. At night he lay warm and comfortable with Bracy's arms about him, the resilience of youth making the hard ground on which they lay seem as good as a bed.
One evening as they lay, sleep drifting over them, a thought came into Gedge's mind and he whispered in English, 'Sir, sir! You did what you set out to; Rustem can tell his father how many dragons we killed and how they're all in that valley. Do you think he'll let us go back to Gittah?'
Bracy looked at him seriously, and touched a finger to his cheek. 'I think we have a very good chance that he will, even though we did not kill them all as I said. Still, Straton is a man of honour and will see we have done our best. We could be back with the regiment before another month has passed, Gedge.'
'Hurray!' cried Gedge, although quietly. 'Ain't that wonderful, sir? Back with our friends?'
'Do you long to be back with the regiment so much, Bill?' asked Bracy, a touch sorrowfully.
'Course I do, don't you?' asked Gedge, then noted the sadness on Bracy's face. 'Oh!' he ejaculated, 'you won't let them take me away from you, will you? Oh, don't, please don't, sir!'
'We'll think of something,' said Bracy firmly. 'There may be a way, I have thought about this already.'
'What? What'll we do?' asked Gedge, but Bracy just hushed him gently and settled him more comfortably under the blankets. 'Oh, but I am stupid!' thought Gedge, 'why didn't I think about this? And now I've made him sad, and he was so happy. Well done, Bill,' he thought in annoyance at himself, 'you are a prize chump.' So thinking he was quite sure he would lie awake all night until he had thought of a solution, but it seemed to him that the very next moment he was opening his eyes to see the dawn. He stirred restlessly, rousing Bracy, who did not seem at all put out to have Gedge get him up so early. Gedge for his part was glad to see that Bracy had recovered his good spirits and was cheerful as they quietly prepared some food to break their fast.
As they went on Rustem recognised sights from his journey out, greeting them as if they were old friends. Gedge smiled at his young friend with fond indulgence as the boy looked about him with a shining and happy face, thinking that such exuberance was excusable in one so young. Then he thought about the streets in London where he and his friends had grown up and felt a wave of homesickness wash over him, after which he thought only kind thoughts of Rustem's boyish joy. Bracy looked at Rustem with great indulgence and agreed cheerfully with the boy's assertion that his land was beautiful.
At last they came to the trail leading down into the valley of Rustem's people, their horses lifting their ears with delight at walking downhill. Gedge looked over the neat fields and well-kept farmhouses and felt very glad for his young friend, whose face was set in youthful dignity and whose eyes were bright with unshed tears. Entering the valley in the late morning, they kept a very easy pace down the narrow, steep trail, Rustem looking all about him as if at sights he had thought he would never see again. The boy's eyes were fixed on the town with great longing, and Gedge took his hand and squeezed it companionably.
'We'll be there before too long, pard'ner,' he said. 'Jest think how pleased yer dad'll be to see you!'
'Oh, he will whip me for being a disobedient boy,' said Rustem offhand, but he could not disguise the deep yearning in his voice.
On the valley floor everything was green and fresh. The herds of sheep looked at the returning young men with little interest, having quite forgotten the need to be saved from dragons, and returned lazily to their task of grazing peaceably. From time to time a man working in the fields raised a hand to wave to them, but no one seemed to recognise them as the men who had set out the previous year. At last, in late afternoon, they reached the little town, and rode in slowly, their horses tired and hungry. Bracy's and Gedge's lifted their heads as if they recognised their surroundings and would make their way to their old stables. Here too people looked at the riders incuriously at first, then murmurs grew as first Rustem and then the young Englishmen were recognised. The men of the town surrounded their horses, lifting up their hands and crying out for their story, but Bracy kept them moving, saying he would speak to Straton first. Ahead of them, Gedge saw men rush into Straton's house, and by the time the crowd had allowed the horses to work their way up the street, Straton had come out, his face lined with grief as if he had lost all joy in life.
'I've come back, Father,' said Rustem in a voice that seemed to aim at nonchalance but failed. 'Father, Father!' he cried, slipping from his horse and rushing up to embrace Straton fiercely.
'Oh, my son!' cried Straton brokenly, and father and son clung together weeping.
Gedge and Bracy slid down from their horses, followed by the village headman, and waited till Straton had at last taken his arms from about Rustem, and had wiped his eyes. He looked at them in amazement, as if he had truly expected never to see them again.
'I scarcely believe my eyes,' he said. 'When you left so late in the year on such a journey I thought you had gone to your deaths.'
'Not at all, sir,' said Bracy, 'we have not quite achieved our total aim, but were successful enough and have returned, as you see.' He went on to tell of their journey; how they had reached the great sculptures of the gods of Greece and of Alexander, how they had been menaced by the bear and saved by Rustem's timely arrival - here Straton growled rather like a bear himself, and Rustem, buoyed up with joy at seeing his father, grinned impishly - how they had come to the great wall and penetrated the dark crack leading to the wonderful valley beyond. The crowd cried out to hear of the huge beasts in their queerly warm home and the great flocks of dragons.
'You need not fear them,' said Bracy, 'for while it is true that we did not kill them all, we killed a very great number and those that are left will surely find enough food within the confines of their own home for many years to come. We left at last because we found a danger more terrible than any dragon - thankfully one that cannot leave its distant home. If it were not for Rustem we would all have perished, but his bravery saved us and let us return.' So saying, he went on to tell them of the great monster that stalked the valley and of Rustem's bravery in leading it away from the horses. The crowd exclaimed in horror and Straton shuddered, clasping Rustem to his breast once more. When Bracy's story was finished the people of the town cried out and cheered the three young men loudly, again and again, making Rustem grin with pleasure and bringing a blush to the cheeks of Bracy and Gedge. When the noise had died down, Straton stepped forward and embraced the British soldiers one after the other.
'You are heroes out of the old tales!' he cried. 'To track down and kill these monsters and return! This is a marvellous feat. And,' he continued, tears coming to his eyes once more, 'you have restored this wicked, wicked child to me. You must be rewarded - ask what you will, Bracy, I will refuse you nothing.'
The crowd cheered again and Gedge held his breath, looking eagerly at Bracy. The young officer looked at him queerly, and took his hand, bending to whisper in his ear, 'Forgive me,' before straightening once more.
'Straton,' he said, emotion in his voice, 'we have returned to you not solely through our own efforts. We were lost and in grave danger of death on the road, ill and despairing - if it had not been for Gedge's good sense, we might never have made it as far as we did,' he said, looking fondly at the lad, and continuing, 'We survived only by the good graces of this gentleman here, who took us in although we were strangers to his people, and who has looked for no reward, not knowing at the time of our arrival even that Rustem was your son.' He threw out a hand and brought the village headman closer, ignoring that gentleman's shyness and dislike of being stared at. 'His people are poor, and yet they sheltered and fed us all winter long,' said Bracy, 'and he himself has brought us safe back to you today. Straton, what I ask is this: reward his kindness to strangers, for he could have let us die in the cold without you ever knowing our fate. Embrace him and his people no longer as your vassals but as your friends!'
The crowd fell silent and the village headman stared in wonder and fear first at Bracy and then at Straton. Gedge looked at Bracy, mouth open, and his mind awhirl. The silence was broken at last by Straton's ebullient laughter. 'Ah, what it is to be young!' he cried. 'Gladly, Bracy, gladly,' and he seized the village headman in a firm embrace, pounding him on the back and calling him 'brother.' Caught up in the joy of their strategos the crowd cheered again, and Bracy, Gedge and Rustem were all seized and made repeat their story, over and over.
* * *
A great feast was prepared, and the young men and the village headman were seated to either side of Straton and given the choicest dishes and an abundance of wine. It passed in a sort of dream for Gedge, who dazedly looked at his officer's joyous face in confusion. Many of the prominent men of the town made toasts to the young men's bravery, and Gedge was very glad that the wine in his cup was well watered. Even though he added more and more water he still felt very sleepy when the guests finally fell asleep where they sat or walked unsteadily out to find their way to their own houses. Straton rose from his seat and supported the yawning Rustem out of the hall.
At last no one was watching him and Gedge let himself sag in his seat until Bracy put an arm under his elbow and made him stand. He saw that the officer was also very tired, but still light hearted and gay.
'Come along, Gedge,' said Bracy, 'you look as if you will slide to the floor.'
'I ain't drunk, sir,' said Gedge, offended.
'No, no, I meant you are tired, come on.'
Gedge let himself be drawn along, a servant with a candle leading the way up the stairs and along the dark corridor. The man opened a door and left them with the candle, bowing as he went past them. Gedge saw their old room, looking much as he remembered it with bright blankets on the bed. The shutters were no longer nailed shut, but were open to allow a cool breeze to enter the room. Bracy shut the door and put a hand on Gedge's shoulder.
'I'm sorry, Gedge,' he said. 'I should have said something to you, but I was so afraid you would have talked me round with your good sense. We have our duty of course, but we also owed duty to the people who sheltered us for so long. And why is Britain in India at all if it is not to improve the lives of the people here? We should count our own welfare as lower than the welfare of the peoples we find in this land.' He looked pleadingly at Gedge, as if hoping he were persuaded.
'You should have said,' muttered Gedge. 'I thought you wanted to get back to the regiment.'
'I'm sorry I didn't tell you,' said Bracy, 'but I am not sorry to have freed those people from their long vassalage. And I am happy for more selfish reasons also.' He stroked Gedge's hair back from his face, murmuring, 'These people have different views than we, Gedge, they won't separate us. We won't ever have to lose each other now.'
'You did that because of me?' asked Gedge, 'but what about yer career? Yer an orficer.'
'I'd rather be here with you,' said Bracy, 'are you very angry with me, Bill?'
'No,' said Gedge beginning to smile. 'I'm not.' He felt the grin broaden and saw its echo on Bracy's face at the thought that they would be in peace amongst friends. 'I seem to rec'lect that bed's comfy,' said Gedge cheerfully.
'Let's see if you have a good memory,' said Bracy, taking his hands and drawing him over to the bright and welcoming blankets.
Gedge laughed and blew out the candle on the way.